DEZHOU: CHINA’S SOLAR CITY
You might find it odd that I would begin a piece about one of the most fascinating experiments in alternate energy sources in the world today, with Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, but trust me, we’ll get there. It was back in 1979 with the second OPEC Oil Embargo that we got our second – after the first embargo of 1973 - bitter taste of how important a role oil played in our lives. Miles of cars lined up for blocks around gas stations all across the country is a memory that us Baby Boomers can never forget. Jimmy Carter responded by funding research into alternative energy sources, installed solar water heaters on the roof of the White House and got Congress to pass conservation legislation so that homeowners got rebates and tax deductions when we retrofitted our houses with energy saving equipment and other conservations measures. I know. I got tax credits for insulating my water heater.
Along comes our 40th President, Ronald Reagan, who promptly removed Carter’s solar water heaters and thus began a decades long dearth of R&D into the development of alternate energy sources to relieve the country’s dependence on imported oil. Between 1980 and the election of Barak Obama in 2008 – that’s 28 years – oil imports increased from around 3 million barrels of crude oil per day to about 10 million barrels a day and virtually no action was taken to develop alternative energy sources. Since Obama’s election just six years ago, crude oil imports have dropped from 10 million bpd to around 5 million, a reduction of just about half, in slightly less than six years. True, the explosive increase in domestic shale oil production and the increase of natural gas as a primary fuel have much to do with this precipitous decline. Nonetheless, I find it remarkable that so much has been accomplished in so little time.
Overall, alternate energy consumption has steadily increased year to year under the Obama Administration while coal and oil have steadily declined. True, consumption from alternate energy sources today make up only 10% percent of our total energy consumption but let’s recall our 40th President admonition that “Government isn’t the solution; Government is the problem” which might go a long way towards explaining why it is that we lag so far behind our European counterparts in alternate energy use. (Both France and Sweden get about 70% and 42%, respectively, from nuclear plants where such energy sources from nuclear here in the US barely registers.) The private sector will not fund research into long-term alternative energy research and development since it is not in their short-term interests and profits to do so. Thus, in those socialist countries around the world, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Italy, etc. they’ve invested in the development of alternate and renewable energy sources where we, until 2008, have not or did so minimally so as not to upset Mobil-Exxon and Saudi Arabia.
Turning to China, let’s consider Dezhou, China’s experimental solar city under development. This cooperative government and private sector funded project began in 1997 with the development of a plan to transform this city of 5.5 million into an Economic Development Zone to emphasize solar technology research and development, manufacturing, education and capacity building. In 2005, parallel to the national government’s promulgation of series of laws to promote renewable energy sources, the local government created a Solar Industry Promotion Committee comprised of the mayor, the party secretary and officers of the departments of reform, development, urban planning, finance and new technologies, that instituted a series of actions to turn Dezhou into China’s “Solar City.” Today Dezhou boasts over 120 solar energy companies that generate $3.46 billion annually for the city’s coffers. Between 2005 and 2010 the growth rate of the solar energy industry was 30% and some 30,000 of its residents were working in solar related industries. Between 1998 and 2008 the local government allocated $15.7 million (2% of the city’s 2008 fiscal revenues) while over the same period, private stakeholders invested upwards of $1.23 billion. This private sector investment amounts to a return of $78 for every $1 of government investment.
What we have in China’s Solar City is a good example of a successful public/private partnership with the government providing, through long-term planning and “starter” funds, initial actions that laid the groundwork for eventual success. Imagine, if you can, how much further along we here in the United States might be in the use of renewable resources if back in 1980 we had journeyed along the same pathway as Dezhou. The results could have been staggering.
But this isn’t the road down which we journeyed. Our path might be called: the rocky, misguided road of “Government Isn’t The Solution; Government Is The Problem” and we are still paying the price for this nonsense.
On a more personal note, my recent visits to Sri Lanka and Tanzania were informative when it comes to China’s emergence as a regional power in South Asia. Brand new, beautifully designed and engineered limited access highways; two new International Airports in Sri Lanka and a brand new deep-water port; signs everywhere in both countries of China’s international cooperative development activities, something that I used to see associated with the United States in my travels, but haven’t seen a sign of in decades. It’s no secret why China is making friends around the world. It seems that the only activities we, the United States, engages in when it comes to international cooperation are limited to bombing runs and drone strikes.
Government bashing continues today mainly among the Tea Party, Right Wingers and the Republicans. The cost of such attitudes in lost opportunities to say nothing of current neglect and decay of our infrastructure, is enormous. We can’t even pass a bill to extend the Highway Trust Fund Act to repair our decaying roads and bridges, much less revamp our aging, dangerous electrical grid, and fix our slow speed, hack-prone internet system. To engage in the kinds of long term planning and public/private partnerships that results in achievements like Dezhou, China’s Solar City, seems like a fantasy here in the good old USofA. And that, my friends, is a tragedy of the first order.
PS: It is extraordinary difficult to find recent and current data about the U.S.'s energy consumption. Don't know why. One would think this would be readily available but it's not.