China-U.S. Science Agreement Signals Dawn of a New Era

The $150 million Clean Energy Research Center that the two superpowers agreed to fund this week represents no less than a revolution in the way the two countries think about joint research. There's plenty of warranted skepticism about whether the two countries, which together emit 40% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, will ever agree to actual cuts. But on energy research, Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao are entering new territory—and in some important ways, as it ramps up its energy research enterprise, China could lead the way.

The center, a virtual collaboration in which each country manages its own projects, is supposed to receive $15 million a year for 5 years from each country. By comparison, the U.S. Department of Energy now spends roughly $5.5 million on joint energy research with China. (The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder Golden, Colorado, for instance, spends only $500,000 per year on joint research with China.)

American scientists have shared their scientific and technological expertise with China for decades, but until now Chinese scientists have contributed only in-kind donations, mostly salaries, to joint energy studies. Now they'll be equal financial partners in the venture.

"That's intriguing," said NREL's David Kline. "Extremely significant" was how Mark Levine of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California put it. DOE's David Sandalow said the new partnership "reflects the strong Chinese interest in energy."

Under a fairly typical program, in which U.S. experts trained Chinese experts on simulation techniques for appliances to develop new efficiency standards, funding for the work "never flowed across borders," said Levine. That restriction limited the value of the research to U.S. scientists.

But U.S. energy experts increasingly have plenty to learn from the rapidly expanding Chinese expertise in energy. China has the top experts on gasification in the world, says Levine, because it is expanding its use of coal to produce chemical raw materials. Chinese studies on energy efficiency are making great strides, he adds, saying that their work on using windows to light indoor areas "is ahead of our efforts." He also cited their work on understanding how behavior affects energy use, as well as techniques of monitoring the use of energy in buildings. "They're destined to be ahead of us in many more areas," he said. "I've been to China five times since June," says Sandalow, who runs DOE's international programs. "I've been struck by their work in energy efficiency, electric vehicle, renewable energy, coal technology. They're not waiting for the future."

Under President George W. Bush, the United States and China took initial steps toward partnering under the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which included talks and meetings on energy research cooperation. But the partnership didn't lead to a big expansion in energy efforts. For example, in terms of coal research, the Bush Administration wanted to partner with China on the process of gasifying coal for power and storing the CO2 underground. But China was more interested in the former than the latter, so joint work on both was limited.

Sandalow says Obama wants to expand on Bush's "useful initial steps" toward cooperation with a full-blown program. The effort will have three areas: coal research, energy efficiency, and clean vehicles. The United States will dip into existing research funds to contribute $2.5 million per year in each area—for a total of $7.5 million, says Sandalow. He hopes the private sector will put up a matching amount. (This week's deal between GE and Shenhua on clean coal suggests that there's plenty of corporate interest in such collaborations.)

He hopes the virtual center will foster collaborations between researchers in industry, academia, and the government. The Energy Department has already put out a call for ideas on how to structure the U.S. side of the partnership. It also remains to be seen how the U.S.-China research program will connect with new joint-deployment programs, also announced in Beijing this week, on electric vehicles, energy efficiency, renewable energy, coal, and shale gas.

Sandalow acknowledges addressed two potential stumbling blocks to success: intellectual property (IP) and the U.S. Congress. China has a poor record of protecting inventions, but Sandalow says that agreements on IP will be "paramount" and worked out on a case-by-case basis. On worries He acknowledged that lawmakers on Capitol Hill might wonder whether U.S. tax dollars should be going to help China, Sandalow says he hopes to demonstrate to them that cooperating with China will "help America."