Chinese Cleantech: Cooperation and Competition

Global energy innovation is not a zero sum game.  A technology that improves the efficiency of solar panels can be deployed anywhere regardless of who holds the patent and a country that can produce cheaper wind turbines means that more wind power can be installed globally for the same amount of money.  Despite the fact that everyone can benefit from global innovation, the spoils are clearly not divided evenly and there are winners and losers at the local level.  No country inspires more fear right now regarding who will reap most of the benefits of new developments in clean technology than China, which is clearly playing by some different rules than other countries.  Almost every day there is a new report in the U.S. press about how China is unfairly stealing intellectual property (IP) from other countries and using the appropriated technology to compete against the same international companies that gave them these ideas.  According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, appropriating foreign IP may actually be part of a coordinated state policy.  So how should we think about China’s role in the development of clean energy?

James Fallow presents a fascinating model in the Atlantic Monthly about how the U.S. and China have formed a mutually beneficial relationship regarding innovation in the energy sector.  Fallow focuses on “clean coal”, which he argues needs to be a focus of anyone serious about arresting climate change given the facts that the U.S. and China are both the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and the largest consumers of coal.  His basic argument is that although a lot of the best innovations are still coming from the U.S., America simply isn’t constructing that many new power plants compared to China.  American innovators benefit by having someone actually apply their ideas in a real world context on a meaningful scale and China is the perfect place to do that given the rapid rate at which they are building new sources of power of every kind.  The Chinese turn American experiments into real world applications, refine the idea, and the U.S. learns the ins and outs of the new ideas it has developed more rapidly than it would otherwise.  Everybody wins.

What makes people more nervous is when China comes up with the big ideas themselves.  It was recently announced at a Chinese Academy of Sciences meeting that their government is undertaking a program to build the world’s first thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactors, which many refer to as “clean nuclear” power.  Although much of the initial research on generating energy from thorium was conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee during the 60s and 70s, the work was largely abandoned in favor of pursuing research on nuclear energy based on uranium.  If the Chinese are the first to create working power plants from this technology America could find itself importing much of the technology for clean nuclear in the future from China and paying Chinese companies to use their patents.

Regardless of the degree to which policy makers see China as a competitor or an opportunity, the best response is clear.  Continuing to push the envelope of innovation will benefit both individual countries and global energy consumers overall.  As one Japanese executive is quoted in the Financial Times as saying, “When we install a new process in China we know that some technical details will inevitably leak out to rivals. So we always have to make sure that when we introduce the latest generation of technology in an overseas plant we are working away on the next generation in our research laboratories in Japan.”  Whatever else is done to protect countries’ and companies’ intellectual property, the only way to stay ahead of the game is for everyone to do all they can to continue coming up with new ideas and technologies.

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2 Responses to Chinese Cleantech: Cooperation and Competition

  1. richard hickinbotham says:

    what rewards does china give inventors for fusion

    from richard

  2. Timothy R. says:

    My guess is that Chinese scientists working on an government funded project would not be able to take out patents on their discoveries. However, someone who discovered fusion while working in a private sector context would probably be able to patent their work. Beyond the question of being able to personally patent the work creating fusion would probably get the inventor(s) access to good jobs and lots of positive attention from their own government and the international community. I’d be interested to hear from any readers who have more knowledge of how research works in China what they think the answer is to this question.

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