If William Latta has his way, Beijing may soon have only clear blue skies. In his corner office on the 11th floor of a high-rise building near the capital's Sanlitun Village, Latta, the managing director of the US clean-coal company LP Amina LLC, said his company is working with coal-fired plants in China to reduce carbon emissions.
"See the smog out there? We can help with that," he said.
Latta is just one of the many next-generation Western technocrats and entrepreneurs who are helping China with its efforts to develop alternate energy resources and reduce carbon emissions. Over the past two years, China has already leapfrogged competitors from Denmark, Germany, Spain and the United States to become the world's largest maker of wind turbines and solar panels.
At the same time, the country is also taking steps to build more nuclear reactors and energy-efficient coal power plants.
The frantic pace at which China is expanding its push for renewable energy reflects its commitment to the reduction of carbon emissions as it strives for a more balanced growth model that is not reliant on costly imports of fossil fuels. The government has already announced plans to increase the share of non-fossil energy in total energy consumption to 11.4 percent by 2015 from 8.3 percent in 2010.
In December, the National Energy Administration, the top energy agency, said that power generated by clean-energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass and nuclear will account for energy equivalent to that produced by 480 million tons of standard coal between 2011 and 2015. That in itself would be a major achievement, considering that power generated by clean-energy sources was 300 million tons in the previous five years.
Despite hurdles such as overcapacity in China's wind- and solar-power equipment industry and the difficulty in connecting the power generated by wind to the grid, experts and analysts say that clean energy and clean technologies are strategic investments for China, not only for environmental reasons but also for energy security.
Frank Li, lead partner for the clean-tech industry at Deloitte Northern China, a member of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd, said that he anticipates growth not only in his company's clean-tech related business in China but also in confidence in the country's general business climate for the clean-energy sector.
"People often ask me for advice, trying to see if wind and solar power are still worth investing in. It is true that there have been some problems in these sectors in China, such as overcapacity. But from a strategic point of view, none of these problems need be problems any more," Li said.
According to Li, China has the third-largest coal reserves in the world and is ranked 14 in terms of reserves of oil and natural gas. Coal contributes more than 70 percent of China's energy needs while oil and natural gas account for 21.6 percent. But despite the statistics, the deep fuel reserves are nothing when equated with China's population of 1.34 billion, the robust economy and growing energy needs. The country accounted for 20.3 percent of global energy consumption in 2010, and that figure is likely to rise dramatically.
"Statistics from BP's 2011 World Energy Review show, that based on China's reserves and its consumption in 2010, the coal reserves will be exhausted in 35 years, while oil will be used up in 9.9 years and natural gas in 29 years," he said.
Although improved exploration and exploitation techniques offer the prospect of finding more fossil fuels in China, there is no denying that they have a limited life span. For better energy security, it is not prudent for a country such as China to rely heavily on imported energy resources when its own reserves are declining.
In China's case, 55.8 percent of its oil requirement in 2010 came from imports, compared with 51 percent in 2008. More importantly, China needs to develop alternative energy resources, if it is to honor its global commitments on the reduction of carbon emissions, said experts.
Sean Gilbert, director of climate change and sustainability at global consultancy KPMG LLP, said that, in terms of reducing carbon emissions, one has to look into clean-energy sources, because improving energy efficiency alone is not good enough for the planet. Hence there is a big incentive for China to have ambitious installation goals for clean energy.
China has the globe's highest installed wind-power capacity and the highest number of nuclear power stations under construction. The country also produces the majority of the world's solar PV cells and is the biggest hydropower market.
"China has nearly one-fifth of the world population, so the total size of green-energy installations in China over time should reflect this and be a very large absolute figure. The current investments are welcome, but it is just the start of things to come," Gilbert said.
One of the biggest concerns expressed about clean energy is that its application leads to job losses. But experts say that not only does the sector hold the promise of more jobs, it will also create a cleaner, healthier future.
In November 2011, the China Council of International Cooperation on Environment and Development said that by 2015 China may spend an estimated 5.77 trillion yuan ($909 billion) to improve energy efficiency and protect the environment. At the same time, the phasing-out of high-polluting and energy-intensive industries could cost the country as many as 952,100 jobs and more than 100 billion yuan in economic output by 2015. However, in return the country could save 1.43 trillion yuan in energy expenses, boost GDP growth by 8.08 trillion yuan and create 10.58 million jobs.
According to estimates by Tsinghua University, investment in China's new-and clean-energy sectors will reach 5 trillion yuan in the coming 10 years. Such a huge market will provide several windows of opportunity for Western companies and multinationals.
Much of that optimism comes from the fact that Western companies still have the upper hand when it comes to advanced core technologies for clean energy, said Zhu Junsheng, president of the China Renewable Energy Industries Association.
"The competition is more intense than five years ago, but the pie of China's clean-energy sector is also getting bigger. There is still plenty of room for growth," said Zhu.
The global trends for the wind power industry are not that encouraging considering the precarious financial situation in Europe and the weak US economy. Wind and other high-cost forms of energy production are virtually on the backburner, with some European nations even deciding to end subsidies for the sector.
But the market for wind turbines has been growing steadily in China, and that's why large European conglomerates such Siemens AG have such strong confidence in the Chinese market.
Siemens, a leading supplier of wind-power solutions, has teamed up with Shanghai Electric Group Co Ltd to form two joint ventures for wind power with the aim of strengthening the German company's footprint in China.
"China has a very attractive wind-power market, but the disadvantage of being in such an attractive market is the tough competition from both international and local players," said Kay Weber, CEO of Siemens Wind Power Asia-Pacific. "By forming joint ventures with a strong local partner, we can combine our strengths to be successful in China," he said.
Foreign producers of wind turbines have seen their market share in China drop dramatically to 30 percent from 70 percent over the past five years after an increasing number of Chinese companies entered the sector, according to a study by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, one of the largest consultancies in Europe.
When Siemens entered the wind-power industry in 2004 by acquiring the Danish wind turbine producer Bonus Energy A/S, China was not a top priority. "To be honest, at that time, we wanted to focus more on easier markets, such as Europe and America. But you cannot be successful in the world if you don't succeed in China," said Weber.
China has since overtaken the United States and is now the largest market for wind power. Although China's newly installed wind-power capacity has slowed from an annual growth rate of 100 percent between 2006 and 2010, it is still the most promising market for global suppliers of wind power equipment.
The China Wind Energy Development Roadmap 2050, released by the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission in October 2011, shows that China's annual new-installed wind capacity will remain steady at 15 gigawatts per year until 2020, 20 gW per year from 2020 to 2030, and 30 gW per year for the decade to 2050.
"Experience shows that government targets are often exceeded in China. Wind-power prices are coming down and are cheaper than solar power. We believe that the newly installed wind-power capacity in China will reach at least 20 gW per year," said Watson Liu, vice-president for Greater China at Roland Berger.
But the tempting market also lures more competitors, and therefore overcapacity is inevitable. Liu said that China's demand for wind-power equipment was 20gW in 2010 whereas the production capacity by Chinese producers alone was 30 gW.
There has been high number of accidents caused by failures and malfunctions of turbines, including massive power outages and even some fatalities.
China's National Energy Administration undertook many initiatives in 2011, by moving toward a more mature industry with higher standards for safety and quality control, grid connection requirements and a centralized approval process for wind-farm projects, all of which are expected to open up more investment opportunities for Western companies.
"We anticipate milestone developments in the Chinese wind sector over the next three to five years. There's a greater focus on safety, quality control and mature industry standards. Such trends will help high-quality and sophisticated turbine manufacturers like us," said Jens Tommerup, president of Vestas China, part of Vestas Wind Systems A/S.
Banking on hydropower
Hydropower is the world's largest source of renewable energy. China has been busy harnessing its power, with 17 percent of its 2010 electricity requirement coming from hydropower sources.
Though development of large hydropower projects in China has slowed considerably because of greater awareness of ecological and social factors, experts still say that it is the most mature and cheapest source of renewable energy.
Pichler Heinz, the China manager of Andritz Hydro, part of the Andritz Group, one of the world's largest suppliers of equipment for hydropower plants, said that although business has not lived up to expectations, the company has no plans to move out of China as it believes there is still huge untapped potential. On the contrary, Heinz said, Andritz plans to invest more in its manufacturing partner in Sichuan province for an additional manufacturing joint venture.
"China's hydropower had an installed capacity of 216 gW in 2010. I believe the same amount is still available to be developed. The potential is huge," Heinz said.
In 2010, China set the goal of reaching 300 gW of installed hydropower capacity by 2015, which will be raised to 330 gW by 2020.
In a hydropower report released by Deutsche Bank Group in late October 2011, China's installed hydropower capacity is expected to exceed the governmental goal of 330 gW to 348 gW by 2020.
Martin Andrae, president and CEO of Voith Hydro Shanghai, a joint venture between the world's leading hydropower equipment provider Voith Group and Shanghai Electronic Corp, said that there is a tremendous demand for electricity in China to support growth and eliminate power shortages. But the country needs to generate energy in a green manner.
"Hydropower is one of the most effective approaches for China to achieve its goal of cutting carbon emissions. Last summer, China faced shortages of around 30 gW in the State Grid and of about 10 gW in China Southern Power Grid," Andrae said, adding that hydro plants have great durability. "If maintained well, they can be operational for 60 to 90 years, whereas wind-power installations average 20 to 25 years and thermal plants 35 to 40 years," he said.
"Our research shows that in the first half of 2011, China's investment in hydropower plants was nearly the same as that of Switzerland, a tiny country," Heinz said.
Statistics from the China Electricity Council show that the country's installed hydropower capacity was around 12.25 gW in 2011, significant growth from previous years but still lagging behind the schedule of an average new installation of 15.4 gW per year between 2011 and 2015.
Like hydropower, nuclear energy is a prominent source of clean energy and accounts for nearly 13.8 percent of global electricity requirements. In China, the government is likely to set a target of generating 70-80 gW of its electricity needs from nuclear power by 2020.
Like many nuclear-equipment manufacturers, Jiangsu-based Shentong Valve Co Ltd is anticipating a huge increase in orders this year, boosted by expectations that China will resume approvals for new nuclear projects soon.
The valve maker has been the only supplier of butterfly and ball valves - key components in nuclear reactors - for new reactors since 2008.
"We expect to receive new orders worth 150 million yuan if at least four reactors are built each year," said Zhang Qiqiang, secretary to the chairman of Shentong Valve.
China recently upgraded its safety standards on nuclear power projects according to the finalized Nuclear Safety Plan currently awaiting approval from the State Council, the Chinese cabinet. It is widely believed that China will adopt third-generation technology in all plants, including the AP 1000 developed by the US company Westinghouse Electric Co and EPR developed by Areva SA of France.
Industry analysts estimate that the new nuclear project approvals will create a market worth 300 billion yuan in the next five years.
Despite a freeze in the industry after the nuclear accident in Japan last year, investment in the sector grew by 26 percent during the first 10 months of 2011, according to estimates from the China Electricity Council.
Clean coal on fire
Although China is taking steps to "decarbonize" itself, this does not mean the end of the road for companies in the conventional energy sector, such as coal. In fact, companies such as LP Amina are expanding their operations in China in a big way to ride the clean-energy wave.
"One of the major challenges we have in China is to cope with fast market growth," says Latta, adding he is expecting a boom in business in China. LP Amina, which was established in the US in 2007, started its Chinese operations in 2008 after witnessing strong demand for pollution-reduction techniques at coal-fired power stations.
Latta said that using LP Amina's clean-coal technology, coal-fired power plants can not only reduce up to 95 percent of nitrogen oxide from the baseline but also improve energy efficiency. "We are one of the few companies in the world that can combine emissions reduction with improved energy efficiency simultaneously," he said.
For its first few projects in China, LP Amina took the initiative of finding coal-fired plants interested in the technology. "Things have changed now as more people are coming to us. Our name is invariably mentioned for new projects," Latta said. The company finished its first project in 2009, has so far completed 11, and is currently working on 100 projects across China.
Apart from the advanced technologies, Latta attributes his company's success in China to the country's booming market for clean coal. According to Latta, his company's business in the US is fairly stable, because the desire to deploy cutting-edge technology among his home country's coal-fired power plants, all built about 40 years ago, is not that strong.
"But in China, nitrogen-oxide control is the main target in the government's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15). The market is booming and that is why we are expanding," he said.
According to the plan, China is aiming to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia nitrogen by 10 percent below 2010 levels, and to cut demand for sulfur dioxide and chemical oxygen by 8 percent between 2011 and 2015, all of which is expected to create a market worth $30 billion.
Latta said he doesn't think the market can be as big as $30 billion. "But it can be $20 billion at least. Even if we capture 3 percent of it, it will be huge," he said.