Tuesday, December 6, 2011

China's Cleantech Success: Part III - Leveraging Collaboration

In his opening remarks at the Clean Energy Forum, Zheng Bijian, Chairman of the China Institute for Innovation & Development Strategy, reminded participants that Chinese investment in the United States surpassed United States investment in China last year. The countries’ economies are increasingly interdependent – as are the energy and environmental challenges they face.  “It is both necessary and possible to work together," said Zheng

Despite the difficult politics of U.S.-China relations, investors and entrepreneurs have begun to show the way toward building and expanding clean energy trade and investment that links the U.S. and China in a productive ways.

The U.S. and Chinese governments have been cooperating on clean energy technologies for decades, but when President Obama announced the creation of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) Program during his state visit to China in November 2009, he helped to launch a fundamentally new way of working together.   The commercial benefits – and intellectual property ownership – of the CERC collaborations are to be shared according to a negotiated protocol.

While the high-minded rhetoric found in that meeting between Chinese President Hu and Obama captured a political zeitgeist that now is shared by perhaps too few, the new collaborative investments in cleantech that have been spawned since indicate real coming opportunities.  

The CERC Program has thusfar flown under the radar of most in Congress, and proponents of the program say they would rather it stay that way given the heated anti-China rhetoric that is popular with some in Congress these days.  

The small and highly strategic CERC Program is a tiny piece of the U.S. budget: $150 million in total public and private funding split between the United States and China.  The program intends to leverage this public funding by encouraging collaboration and private investment.  At the strategic level, the hope is that U.S.-China partnerships spawned here will help bind entrepreneurs and investors from both nations into collaborative business relationships rather than zero-sum competition.

Another of the program's larger strategic goals is to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the three largest sources: coal-fired power plants, cars and trucks in the world's two largest markets, and the massive stock of buildings under construction in China's growing cities.  Obama's position has been that the United States and China are central to solving the climate change challenge.

Even while the broader bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China has cooled since 2009, three new U.S.-China CERCs for development and commercialization of clean technologies have been launched with a combination of public and private funding.  

The three U.S.-based CERCs (which have three counterpart "EIH" centers in China) are in Detroit for electric vehicles, in West Virginia for clean coal technology, and in Berkeley for building efficiency .  The CERCs are to implement a clear plan to use the complementary strengths of the U.S. Chinese markets, with innovation focused in the U.S. and rapid deployment and scaling up operations being the focus in China. 

While pubic funding to run these six centers is modest, returns could be considerable, making this, as Terry Cooke describes, "a thoughtful and highly promising avenue for marshaling innovation talent,  top-level technology and investment support."  

News from U.S. CERCs and China-based EIHs will be worth watching in coming years as they help advance new prospects for clean energy cooperation and investment.


  1. I remember hearing something about China owning a large part of our debt. How does that fit into your investment comments in the first paragraph?

  2. Thanks for commenting, Sonja. These kinds of numbers give one pause, don't they? I think its important to note that Chinese investments in U.S. companies have become larger relative to U.S. investment in China only since 2008, and that many U.S. investments have been trimmed recently and have yet to rebound. The 'Chinese ownership of U.S debt' you mentioned generally refers to the Chinese government (or government-controlled businesses) buying and holding U.S. Treasury bonds. According to the "Washington Post," China became the largest foreign creditor to the U.S. in November 2008, and now holds about 26% of U.S. Treasury bonds. The investments we are talking about here is not investment in Treasury bonds, but rather capital investments in U.S. companies, large and small. That said, Chises public vs private entities often do not have clear distinctions as these do in the U.S., causing many concerns. UCLA has an interesting discussion of U.S. - Asia foreign investment issues online here: http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/uschina/trade_investment.shtml