June 25th, 2012

Cleantech Opportunities China, from an American Living in Beijing

Beijing -

Image Source: http://bigbullinachinashop.blogspot.com/2012/03/welcome-to-tour-our-factory-business.html

I met with Daniel Enking a few months ago to chat about his experience living in China and being interested in cleantech. We talked about solar thermal manufacturing, something his discusses in his personal blog, politics, the nationalism associated with cleantech, his thoughts on the how the USA and China would work together, and other travel related items that globe trotting 20 year olds always tend to talk about.


I enjoyed his perspective, because he wanted to go where the action is (and he’s also from Maine, which got him many brownie points in my book) and it was clear he understood the value of seeing something for yourself.

I asked Daniel to share some of this thoughts working in China and where he thought some opportunites are. If you have any questions for daniel, please leave them in the comments. If you wan to check out his personal blog, you can find it at Big Bull in a China Shop.

Enter Daniel Enking

A friend of mine has been a pioneering elementary school educator in Maine for over 30 years. Recently she was invited to participate in a once in a lifetime opportunity: an educational exchange between some of the leading teachers in America and China. Her group was flown to China, where they participated in a weeklong conference and idea exchange. At one point during the visit, one of the Chinese teachers came up to her and said she wanted to ask her a question. “Please tell me,” said the Chinese teacher in broken English, “How can we teach creativity?”

This sums up in a nutshell China’s biggest obstacle to competing on the world stage as a leading economy and superpower, and it has implications for China’s contribution to advancing the cleantech industry and tackling climate change.

I live in Beijing were I’m the Director of a group called the Beijing Energy Network. We host bi-weekly speaker events that give mid career cleantech professionals (composed of mostly Chinese, Americans and Europeans) an opportunity to learn more about the industry and to network. A few weeks ago we had the privilege of co-hosting the China-based kick-off event for an international green business plan competition called the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. The event revolved around a panel lead by green architect and rock star William McDonough, Climate Group Co-Founder Jim Walker and Scott Frank, winner of the 2010 Green Challenge. Despite the competition’s possibly unrivaled international reach, this is incidentally the first year the challenge is being launched and making a big push in China. And while I’m completely supportive of the Green Challenge’s intentions, I’m skeptical that they will get many revolutionary entries from China.

Sure, the Chinese are the masters of incremental innovation: no one can reverse engineering, duplicate and then make slight improvements to a technology with the same precision and speed with which the Chinese can (except maybe the Japanese or Koreans?). Incremental innovation has been the main driver behind the revolution in Chinese solar panel manufacturing that has caused the price of solar to plummet in the last few years.

But when it comes to revolutionary, disruptive and game changing technologies like those the Green Challenge is looking for – and some of the past winners have been truly revolutionary (my favorite is Greensulate™, an organic insulator grown from mushroom roots that is designed to replace polystyrene) – well, let’s just say we haven’t seen one of those come out of China since the invention of gunpowder.

The problem is rooted deep in Chinese society and the Chinese education system. From childhood, students are primarily taught to memorize and regurgitate massive amounts of information. This leads to lots of skilled engineers and mathematicians, but it doesn’t breed great inventors, managers or leaders. Once students graduate from college, there is a lot of pressure from their parents to get a stable job, so entrepreneurship is not encouraged. Until Chinese educators learn to “teach creativity,” China’s role in the green revolution will be confined to assembling and churning out massive quantities of cheap cleantech products like solar panels.

But the Chinese have also begun to realize where their Achilles heel lies, and the Chinese government is bent on fixing it, despite all the inertia against them. International elementary, middle and high schools with international curriculums and teachers are popping up around China at an alarming rate. Even some American universities like Duke are building entire new campuses in China. Municipal governments around the country are trying to encourage research and development centers, vying to become the next “Silicon Valley of China.” In Beijing, a few technology incubators and other programs to encourage entrepreneurship have begun to take shape.

So for those of you looking nervously across the ocean at the roaring dragon, keep in mind that dragon can be beaten with a little creative thinking. And for those of you who want to get your hands dirty and dive into the massive opportunity that China represents, consider finding a way to bring a western education to the Chinese investors and leaders of tomorrow.

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Chris Williams

About Chris Williams

Chris Williams is the editor of Green Light Distrikt and Chief Marketing Officer at HeatSpring . He has experience in business development, prototyping and new venture research with a focus on geothermal heat pumps, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic technologies. Chris is an IGSHPA accredited geothermal installer and NABCEP certified solar installer. Chris is focused on solving customer facing issues in the creation and adoption of clean energy technologies and products. Chris has installed over 300kW of solar and tens of geothermal systems. He's invented the PV Pal , developed many trainings at HeatSpring, publishes the NABCEP Study Guide , the Hitchhikers Guide to Cleantech and has done due diligence research for Urgent VC . Feel free to connect with him @topherwiliams , on Linkedin , or through email about new ventures, collaborating, writing, research or whatever is on your mind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.desatnik Aaron Desatnik

    Chris and Daniel, thank you. What’s interesting to me in this piece is that it confirms and extends the Chinese stereotype, about precision and efficiency vs creativity. As China’s economy grows as a percent of GDP, this achilles heel, as you call it, has implications beyond disruptive green technology and to more broader disruptive change, and provides a key opportunity for the creative class in the US and elsewhere. Even if this tendency is deeply embedded in China, as a result of Confucianism and other cultural influences, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese try to crack “teaching creativity” with the same efficiency that they have tried to solve other massive problems. That doesn’t mean they’ll succeed, but as China’s ability to maintain and insular culture for thousands of years demonstrates, don’t count the Chinese out. Especially when you consider the number of Chinese families sending their children to college and graduate school in the US.

  • Beijing Tom

    The ‘China-as-copycat’ narrative is pretty hackneyed.  The “dragon can be beaten with a little creative thinking” etc. If only those Chinese could learn from us and get a bit of ”western education” down them, eh?
    You argue that until China learns from the US and becomes an innovator in its own right, its “role in the green revolution will be confined to assembling and churning out massive quantities of cheap cleantech products like solar panels.” I would argue that widespread technology deployment is at least as important as innovation, and is based not on creativity but on creating a favorable policy and market environment for technology uptake. Government subsidies for renewables together with the huge economies of scale possible in China have been instrumental in bringing down the cost of solar technology- something the US (evincing something of an anti-competitive streak that sits uncomfortably with its avowal of free-market values) has attempted to block by slapping on a protectionist tariff. The solution to climate change isn’t going to come from a new technological panacea (Chinese or American), but in creating a favorable policy environment for the widespread adoption of existing technology.

    There are plenty of things holding China back from leading the “green revolution”- coal reliance, perverse incentives in the electricity sector, lack of capacity to act at a municipal level, environmental policy split between multiple bureaucracies, lack of a price on carbon… I’m not sure how high lack of creativity would be on the list, or that the US, for all its innovation, is exactly doing any better!

  • Hongru Franz Hong

    An interesting articles. But I feel a lot of the statements are from your own minds, impressions and understandings, rather than through real and genuine conversation with people who know this area deeply enough. Not to compare between innovation and deployment of technologies (comparison seems to be a very Chinese thing), if Climate Change is real, it is not about how well we are developing technologies, but how much they are useful and we are using them. There are amazing technologies per se, but how much are they going to change the climatic trends? And how much does that cost, and how effective is it to weaken the causes and strengthen the abatement for climate change? It is hard to think of US as leading the green innovation with such a high carbon emission rate per capita. Is it real or is it a game?