The New Silk Road is Paved With Clean Energy — What America Can Learn From China’s Solar Panel Diplomacy

Have solar panel, will travel.

That appears to be the motto of the insurgent globe-spanning renewable energy economy which China is now investing hundreds of billions to develop. For what we’re now beholden to is an economic powerhouse using both its massive capital and its ability to produce inexpensive clean energy systems to spread influence across the world.

(Solar boat diplomacy. China is using its massive financial power base along with its forward-looking clean tech clout to spread its influence across the globe. Meanwhile, the U.S. under Trump remains mired in the dirty energy systems and harmful related politics of the past. Image source: Phys.org.)

As the U.S. under Trump and Republicans withdraws from the world, as it enters a form of  jingoistic protectionism, and as it alienates allies, abandons business opportunities, as it turns a cold shoulder to territories like Puerto Rico — China is making global in-roads through engagement. This engagement comes in the form of foreign aid and clean tech exports. Spear-headed by its 1.2 trillion dollar foreign aid investment called ‘One Belt, One Road,’ China is aiming low cost loans at both developing and developed economies — providing assistance for economic and infrastructure expansion across Europe, Asia and Africa.

For reference, 1.2 trillion dollars is ten times more money than the amount loaned to Europe following the destruction of World War II through the Marshall Plan. And much of this money is focused not only on enabling China to develop a sprawling trade network worth 2.5 trillion dollars, it’s also intended to seed a sustainable energy revolution where much of the needed hardware is manufactured by China.

According to Adnan Z. Amin, the Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency:

“As the energy transition progresses, power grid infrastructure interconnections will be key to facilitate larger and flexible electricity markets that can integrate higher shares of variable renewable energy. As much as 2,000 GW of interconnection capacity will be required by 2050 in order for enough renewables to be deployed to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

“The Belt-and-Road Initiative can provide a promising platform to help meet the need for infrastructural interconnections between countries, particularly if it has greater focus on low-carbon growth and sustainable energy.”

In other words, where myopic right-wing politicians attack trade alliances and risky foreign ‘giveaways,’ China woos partners in developing a massive transcontinental clean energy trading network. For, China, this kind of investment is a major win-win. If the countries connected by China’s Belt and Road initiative succeed, develop and pay off the loans, China profits through both loan payments and by interconnecting trade partners to its renewable pipeline. But if a default occurs, China is increasingly stepping in and asking for collateral in the form of port leases. For example, when Sri Lanka recently defaulted on a large loan payment, China took a port lease in exchange. Meanwhile, in Africa, China holds the leases for over twenty port facilities.

(China’s Belt and Road program aims to connect far-flung developing and developed economies. Image source: Commons.)

Ports are valuable centers for the flow of goods and capital. So adding port leases to far-flung locales which China is investing in and developing could well be seen as a means of expanding its strategic and economic might along with its political influence. It’s the kind of program that the U.S. used to engage in with enthusiasm, but on a much grander scale. Moreover China’s nascent foreign investment campaign comes with a uniquely Chinese clean energy authority twist. They’re not only using it to both open doors for their clean energy products, they’re leveraging this moral capital to criticize Trump’s climate change denial based policies. Note this recent statement from Xinhua:

“Trump abandoned the Paris climate agreement… [which resulted in] diminished benefits for American workers and less U.S. economic production. Ignoring climate change and global efforts, Trump’s America only focuses on its own short-term interest, while recklessly shirking its responsibility, and even damaging other countries’ benefits and global sustainable development.”

This criticism coming from China drips with terms honed to point out the U.S. lack responsibility and the degradation of its leadership position under Trump. A leadership position China appears to be poised to take. Clean energy leadership is, thus, a strategic goal.

While China is presenting a united front in support of clean energy, in the U.S., renewables’ foes are given a megaphone. This month, as the U.S. financial media took another hit off the petroleum industry bong of Goldman Sachs analyst David Tamberrino, and subsequently did everything it could to publicly attack the progress of domestic clean energy leader Tesla, China’s own electrical vehicle sales hit another record high. Monthly EV sales in China during February, according to this CleanTechnica report, topped 34,000 or roughly twice U.S. EV sales volume for the same month.

Despite best efforts by Trump-supported fossil fuel special interests, the U.S. still has a major quality advantage over China’s mainland EVs due primarily to Tesla — which is goading western auto manufacturers into the EV race even as those same harmful interests turn the company into a media whipping boy. If the U.S. EV industry is not to go the way of solar, whose global manufacturing is now undeniably led by China, then the home-grown fossil fuel special interest based media and political attacks are going to have to fail. And if the U.S. overall, is going to be a successful member of the climate-change confronting economies of the 21st Century, it’s going to have to take a note or two from China’s laser focus on the matter.

For right now China is poised to leverage a massive global trade network enabled by foreign aid to export shiploads of solar panels (and probably EVs) down the modern version of the silk road to Asia, Europe and Africa. To many of the 1.2 billion people on Earth who don’t currently have access to electricity or the grids that supply it to the rest of us. If China succeeds, it will build new clean economies, strategic partnerships, and the clout of global moral leadership. The U.S., by contrast, under Trump is heading toward a nasty fossil fuel backwater that will ultimately be confined to the dustbin of history.

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