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Promoting the saving of energy and resources should be taken as a priority by the country and viewed as one of the basic principles the government should follow in the future. -  Hu Jintao, President of China Promoting the saving of energy and resources should be taken as a priority by the country and viewed as one of the basic principles the government should follow in the future. Promoting the saving of energy and resources should be taken as a priority by the country and viewed as one of the basic principles the government should follow in the future. -  Hu Jintao, President of China

Hu Jintao, President of China

Press & News

Turning on a light in China
(published September 23, 2005 San Jose Mercury News)


As China's factories churn out the knit sweaters, sneakers and laptops consumers crave and its households acquire air conditioners, the nation's swelling appetite for energy is being seen at our fuel pumps and in the air we breathe.

When it comes to energy, China's factories, aging commercial buildings and older stock of homes are remarkably wasteful. For every dollar of economic output, it's been estimated China uses nearly four times as much energy as the world average.

Now California is hoping to persuade China's utilities to implement more efficient energy standards in hopes of slowing its seemingly insatiable demand for fuel and improving air quality here at home. Such alliances may also create opportunities for California businesses to help Chinese utilities get greater energy savings from their commercial and residential customers.

By 2010, a major chunk of California's ozone pollution will result directly from particulates generated by Asian power plants, explained Steven Kline, vice president for federal government relations for Pacific Gas & Electric.

"The dirty coal that gets burned in China doesn't just stay there,'' he said.

Kline was part of a group of sometime adversaries -- regulators, utilities and environmentalists -- who traveled to China earlier this month with a common purpose: to explain how California's innovative programs to curb energy demand and set tougher standards for energy efficiency in construction could be adopted in China. In addition to briefing energy officials in Beijing and Shanghai, they signed an agreement with Jiangsu province to offer training in how to boost energy efficiency through regulations and incentives.

"What's good for China is good for the world, good for the environment and good for California,'' said Susan P. Kennedy, a member of the state Public Utilities Commission, who was part of the delegation.

Even though California took a national black eye during the energy crisis, when deregulated power created large-scale shortages, the state is recognized as a national leader in programs to manage user demand. And just this week, state regulators approved the largest energy conservation plan in U.S. history.

Despite population growth of an average of 1.5 percent each year, per capita electrical consumption in California has remained flat for two decades. By using its energy so efficiently, the state has avoided the need to build 10 extra power-generating plants by 2013, Kennedy told the Chinese.

In China, about 100 million new home air conditioners alone -- many of them leaky and inefficient -- suck up as much as 40 percent of urban power consumption during the hottest summer months. And while China -- with 1.3 billion people -- still uses only about one-eighth the energy per person as the United States, experts believe it will face major economic and environmental hurdles unless it builds energy efficiency into its ambitious development programs.

Already, some factories are shut down during energy shortages or forced to operate at night when energy is more available. And energy planners talk about building 40 gigawatts of energy capacity in the country by 2020 -- more than twice what will be produced by the giant Three Gorges Dam, which now controls the flow of the Yangtze River in Southern China.

Unless demand is slowed, the plan would mean building some 300 coal-fired power plants. These plants would send even more sulfur and particulates into the environment, increase air pollution in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and New England, and intensify the global squeeze on energy.

"China is aware and wants to be more resource-efficient,'' said Barbara Finamore, an attorney who directs the China Clean Energy Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council and helped organize the trip.

One key is to guarantee utilities a return on their investment, no matter how much power they generate, and to make it profitable for them to invest in conservation.

Another is to force each consumer to foot a small amount of efficiency initiatives, while giving them incentives, like rebates, to buy the most efficient appliances. (In California, utility customers pay a small ``systems benefit charge'' to fund conservation.) China could also create -- and enforce -- tougher building standards and provide funds to retrofit older buildings and factories.

Already some giant multinational engineering firms like Siemens and Honeywell are conducting pilot programs to see if they can wrest energy efficiency from large projects, said Jiang Lin, who conducts research on Chinese energy issues at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. Smaller start-ups are as yet hampered by the limited financing available for small-scale efficiency programs, but opportunities for such investments could grow.

U.S. firms are also hampered by the decision of the federal government not to sign the Kyoto Protocol, designed to limit the spread of greenhouse gases. If the United States signed the protocol, U.S. firms could trade pollution ``credits,'' and be paid by polluters in the industrial world for capping pollution in less-developed nations.