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China, a Global Center of Energy Innovation?

There is intense optimism that the country can become the “cradle of clean energy.”
April 6, 2010

I just returned from my first trip to China, where I saw firsthand a remarkable country that’s changing so fast that the dust never settles (although, after a particularly polluted Shanghai night, you wish it would).

The country is staking a claim as the global center of clean energy, with ambitious policies that are helping to drive both the manufacturing of solar panels and wind turbines and the development of large markets for renewable energy. This is leading companies such as Applied Materials and GE to set up research facilities in China, where researchers benefit by being close to both factories and customers.

One question is: to what extent is China poised to become a source of real energy innovation, instead of a just cheap goods?

I’ll try to answer this question in future stories. One thing that became clear after just a few days in the country is that there’s intense optimism in the air in cities such as Shanghai, where glittering skyscrapers loom over land that a decade ago had been a desolate marsh. The manager of one research lab there told me about his son’s desire to attend MIT. I asked him when, if ever, he thought people like his son–that is, the most talented and ambitious of the country’s 1.3+ billion inhabitants–would rather stay in China, and attend Chinese universities. It will take time, he said, but not that long–maybe five or 10 years.

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