[enviro-vlc] On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules - NYTimes.com
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September 8, 2010
On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules
By KEITH BRADSHER
CHANGSHA, China — Until very recently, Hunan Province was known mainly for lip-searing spicy food, smoggy cities and destitute pig farmers. Mao was born in a village on the outskirts of Changsha, the provincial capital here in south-central China.
Now, Changsha and two adjacent cities are emerging as a center of clean energy manufacturing. They are churning out solar panels for the American and European markets, developing new equipment to manufacture the panels and branching into turbines that generate electricity from wind. By contrast, clean energy companies in the United States and Europe are struggling. Some have started cutting jobs and moving operations to China in ventures with local partners.
The booming Chinese clean energy sector, now more than a million jobs strong, is quickly coming to dominate the production of technologies essential to slowing global warming and other forms of air pollution. Such technologies are needed to assure adequate energy as the world’s population grows by nearly a third, to nine billion people by the middle of the century, while oil and coal reserves dwindle.
But much of China’s clean energy success lies in aggressive government policies that help this crucial export industry in ways most other governments do not. These measures risk breaking international rules to which China and almost all other nations subscribe, according to some trade experts interviewed by The New York Times.
A visit to one of Changsha’s newest success stories offers an example of the government’s methods. Hunan Sunzone Optoelectronics, a two-year-old company, makes solar panels and ships close to 95 percent of them to Europe. Now it is opening sales offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in preparation for a push into the American market next February.
To help Sunzone, the municipal government transferred to the company 22 acres of valuable urban land close to downtown at a bargain-basement price. That reduced the company’s costs and greatly increased its worth and attractiveness to investors.
Meanwhile, a state bank is preparing to lend to the company at a low interest rate, and the provincial government is sweetening the deal by reimbursing the company for most of the interest payments, to help Sunzone double its production capacity.
Heavily subsidized land and loans for an exporter like Sunzone are the rule, not the exception, for clean energy businesses in Changsha and across China, Chinese executives said in interviews over the last three months.
But this kind of help violates World Trade Organization rules banning virtually all subsidies to exporters, and could be successfully challenged at the agency’s tribunals in Geneva, said Charlene Barshefsky, who was the United States trade representative during the second Clinton administration and negotiated the terms of China’s entry to the organization in 2001.
If the country with the subsidies fails to remove them, other countries can retaliate by imposing steep tariffs on imports from that country. But multinational companies and trade associations in the clean energy business, as in many other industries, have been wary of filing trade cases, fearing Chinese officials’ reputation for retaliating against joint ventures in their country and potentially denying market access to any company that takes sides against China.
W.T.O. rules allow countries to subsidize goods and services in their home markets, as long as those subsidies do not discriminate against imports. But the rules prohibit export subsidies, to prevent governments from trying to help their companies gain in world markets.
The W.T.O. also requires countries to declare all national, state and local subsidies every two years, so that if one country’s exports surge suspiciously, other countries’ trade officials can easily check to see if that product is being subsidized.
But China has virtually ignored the requirement since joining the W.T.O. Contending that it is still a developing country struggling to understand its commitments, China has filed just one list of subsidies, which were in place between 2001 and 2004. And that one list covered only central government policies while omitting local or provincial subsidies.
The Chinese mission to the W.T.O., which is part of China’s commerce ministry, would not comment for this article. After reading questions The New York Times submitted by fax last week, mission officials declined to respond, saying that any comments might affect China’s standing in other trade disputes.
Sunzone and other Chinese clean energy companies also benefit from the fact that the government spends $1 billion a day intervening in the currency markets so that Chinese exports become more affordable in foreign markets. Systematic intervention in currency markets to obtain an advantage in trade violates the rules of the International Monetary Fund, of which China is a member, although the I.M.F. has little power to punish violators.
Chinese wind and solar power manufacturers further benefit from the government’s imposition of sharp reductions this summer in exports of raw materials, known as rare earths, that are crucial for solar panels and wind turbines. China mines almost all of the world’s rare earths. W.T.O. rules ban most export restrictions.
Of course, China’s success in clean energy also stems from assets enjoyed by many of the nation’s industries: low labor costs, expanding universities that groom lots of engineering talent, inexpensive construction and ever-improving transportation and telecommunications networks.
For example, engineers with freshly issued bachelor’s degrees can be found here in Hunan Province for a salary of only about $2,640 a year — not significantly more than blue-collar workers with vocational school degrees can make. But the fuel propelling clean energy companies in China lies in advantages provided by the government, executives say.
Other countries also try to help their clean energy industries, too, but not to the extent that China does — and not, so far at least, to the point of potentially running afoul of W.T.O. rules.
No doubt China’s aggressive tactics are making clean energy more affordable. Solar panel prices have dropped by nearly half in the last two years, and wind turbine prices have fallen by a quarter — partly because of the global financial crisis but mainly because of China’s rapid expansion in these sectors and the accompanying economies of scale. Large Chinese wind turbines now sell for about $685,000 per megawatt of capacity, while Western wind turbines cost $850,000 a megawatt.
The question is whether China is building this industry in ways that are unfair to overseas competitors and make other nations overly dependent on a Chinese industry whose approach to the business may not be economically or politically sustainable.
Because China’s clean energy industry has relied so heavily on land deals and cheap state-supported loans, the industry could be vulnerable if China’s real estate bubble bursts, or if the banks’ loose lending creates financial problems of the sort that have plagued Western financial markets in recent years.
Other countries may also become less enthusiastic about subsidizing renewable energy if it means importing more goods from China instead of creating jobs at home.
The rapid rise of China’s solar and wind industries illuminates how the government helps many export industries, as well as the challenges for the West now that the country has emerged as the world’s second-largest economy, surpassing Japan and gradually gaining on the United States.
Barely a player in the solar industry five years ago, China is on track to produce more than half the world’s solar panels this year. More than 95 percent of them will be exported to countries like the United States and Germany that offer generous subsidies for consumers who buy solar panels.
By contrast, the Chinese government has relatively modest solar subsidies for its citizens. Instead it has devoted more money to helping manufacturers, allowing them to cash in on other countries’ consumer subsidy programs.
China is also on track to make nearly half of the world’s wind turbines this year. China offers financial incentives for utilities to use wind power, which is less costly than solar power, and the country passed the United States last year as the world’s largest wind turbine market. Government-subsidized turbine makers are now preparing for large-scale exports to the United States and Europe, which could also result in violations of W.T.O. rules.
Meanwhile, China itself imports virtually no wind turbines or solar panels, instead protecting those developing industries. For example, China until late last year required that 70 percent of the content of each wind turbine and 80 percent of the content of each solar panel be made within China. China quietly dropped that rule after objections from American officials, but also because its own industries had become the world’s largest, lowest-cost producers.
Now China strongly opposes suggestions in Congress that the United States or Europe follow China’s example and impose “local content” rules to help their own struggling renewable energy industries.
“Now if the U.S. sets up that kind of regulation, it will really be a problem” said Li Junfeng, a senior Chinese energy policy maker. “We need to buy from each other.”
China’s expansion has been traumatic for American and European solar power manufacturers, and Western wind turbine makers are now bracing to compete with low-cost Chinese exports. This year, BP shut down its solar panel manufacturing in Frederick, Md., and in Spain, and laid off most of the employees while expanding a joint venture in China.
Evergreen Solar of Marlboro, Mass., plans to move the final manufacturing steps for its solar panels from Devens, Mass., to China next summer, eliminating 300 American jobs, after struggling to borrow money in the United States and after finding that costs in China were lower.
The Obama administration has begun high-level discussions on how to respond to China’s industrial policies, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said in an interview in Washington in July.
“We are concerned about the depth and breadth of the measures they have taken,” Mr. Geithner said, later adding, “We will be aggressive on the trade front in terms of fighting anything that is clearly discriminatory.”
Here in Changsha, Sunzone’s general manager and chief engineer, Zhao Feng, represents a new breed of Chinese clean energy entrepreneurs. Tall and fit, he is an avid painter, fisherman and golfer.
“If I go to Los Angeles for 10 days, I am on a golf course for eight days,” he said.
A former professor of semiconductors at Hunan University, he has a daughter studying for a doctorate in bioengineering at the University of Chicago on a Pentagon grant, and he owns a house in Chicago a block from President Obama’s.
Mr. Zhao is quick to point out that state and federal governments in the United States have also encouraged the development of the clean energy industry. “Our provincial governor has come several times to our plant, just as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made several visits to solar power companies” in California, he said.
But the Hunan government’s backing of Sunzone is much more extensive than anything in the United States.
With government help, Sunzone lined up financing and received all the permits necessary to build a factory in just three months under an expedited approval system for clean energy businesses. It took only eight more months to build and equip the factory. “The construction teams worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week in three shifts,” Mr. Zhao said.
Building and equipping a solar panel factory in the United States takes 14 to 16 months, and getting environmental and other permits can take years, said Tom Zarrella, the former chief executive of GT Solar in Merrimack, N.H., a big supplier of solar manufacturing equipment to factories in the United States and China.
A strong symbol of the government’s commitment to the clean energy industry in China may be Sunzone’s walled 22-acre compound here.
The company has only 360 employees, who work in a modest two-story building and small factory. Many of them live in a six-story dormitory. The compound also has a demonstration house powered by solar panels.
But the government has granted Sunzone enough cheap land to make room for an orchard of orange trees, a nearly finished golf driving range and winding country lanes — all of it across the street from 17-story apartment buildings near the heart of downtown Changsha. A lone trellis-covered swing that sits on Sunzone’s vast plot seems to signal how little occupied the land is.
As a clean energy business, Sunzone was allowed to buy the land two years ago for $90,000 an acre, Mr. Zhao said. That was one-third of the official price then for industrial land from the government.
Industrial land in this desirable neighborhood now sells for $720,000 an acre, giving Sunzone an eightfold profit on paper. The company carries the land on its books at this market price, and can borrow against it, Mr. Zhao said. The valuable land also means the company has big assets and little debt on its balance sheet, which should help attract investors for a planned initial public offering in 2012.
Executives at three other clean energy companies in and around Changsha said they, too, had been allowed to buy government land for a third of the regulated price.
Mr. Zhao defended the size of his corporate park as necessary for his business and said it was not a real estate investment. The driving range will be made available to all employees for their relaxation, he said. And he said Sunzone hoped to build a nine-story solar research center on part of its land someday.
The local government of Zhuzhou, a city near Changsha, is even more generous. “For really good projects, we can give them the land for free,” said He Jianbo, the deputy director of the city’s flourishing high-tech zone, which already makes everything from electric buses to solar panels, and is preparing to build electric cars. “This land subsidy is not available to traditional industries, only high-tech industries.”
Many state and local governments in the United States have also built roads, installed power lines and made other infrastructure improvements that have increased the value of private land as part of programs to attract clean energy. Tax holidays for such businesses are common in the United States, as in China.
But according to Commerce Department experts in Washington, government agencies in the United States have generally refrained from the sale of deeply discounted government land to export industries, while infrastructure improvements have been made to benefit all road and telecommunications users, not just specific export industries. A wide range of international trade agreements, including W.T.O. rules, allow governments to provide infrastructure and some types of tax breaks, but bar subsidies in the form of cheap transfers of valuable government assets like land to exporters.
Mr. Zhao said that whatever the global trade rules might be on export subsidies, the world should appreciate the generous assistance of Chinese government agencies to the country’s clean energy industries. That support has made possible a sharp drop in the price of renewable energy and has helped humanity address global warming, he said.
The subsidized land will also help Sunzone afford plans to sell solar panels below cost to poor people in western China, Mr. Zhao said, adding that he hoped the effort would build good will and lead to more sales there.
Money for Nothing
As Sunzone prepares to double its manufacturing capacity by the end of this year, state banks and the municipal government are ready to help.
The company has reached a tentative deal to borrow $11 million, to increase employment to 600 workers. The bank will lend the money at an interest rate of about 6 percent, but the provincial government will then give Sunzone a direct rebate to pay more than half the interest on the loan. “Just yesterday, the bank general manager brought his staff here to see how they could be of service to us,” Mr. Zhao said. “We don’t need to go to the bank; they come here.”
Low-interest loans from government-run banks are crucial to China’s clean energy success, some experts say, because of the high cost of factory equipment.
“If you change the interest rate half a percent or 1 percent, the difference is amazing, because the cost is all at the beginning,” said Dennis Bracy, chief executive of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Forum, a discussion group of Chinese energy officials and former American cabinet officials.
In the United States, the Obama administration has approved $10 billion in grants, loan guarantees and other financing to help new entrants in the industry and aid existing companies, and has promised another $10 billion, said Matt Rogers, the senior adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu for economic stimulus programs. Almost all the money is for projects that will generate electricity for the United States.
But the American clean energy programs carry many time-consuming and difficult requirements. Companies must show they can repay loans and have innovative technology. The department has given conditional approval to 18 renewable energy loan guarantees, although only four have led to the actual issuance of loans so far. But the administration is moving quickly to accelerate the process, said Jonathan Silver, the executive director of the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program.
China has been pumping loans into clean energy so rapidly that even $23 billion in credit offered by the China Development Bank to three solar panel exporters and a wind turbine maker since April has barely raised eyebrows. China Development Bank, owned by the government, exists to lend money for strategic priorities.
Western clean energy companies complain of much higher financing costs — when they can raise money at all. Banks have been cautious about the sector, which leans heavily on venture capitalists and private equity firms that demand implicit interest rates of up to 9 percent right now in the United States, said Thomas Maslin, a senior solar analyst at IHS Emerging Energy Research.
Evergreen Solar, the Massachusetts company, struggled for three years to raise money in the States, but had no trouble doing so in China. Chinese state banks were happy to lend most of the money for the factory on very attractive terms, like a five-year loan with no payments of interest or principal until the end of the loan, said Michael El-Hillow, the company’s chief financial officer.
“You can’t get a penny in the United States, it doesn’t matter who you call — banks, government. It’s awful,” he said. “Therein lies the hidden advantage of being in China.”
Many Chinese clean energy executives argue that China should offer more subsidies for its own people to buy renewable energy, in addition to helping export-oriented manufacturers. But until domestic demand takes off, government support will remain crucial.
“Who wins this clean energy race,” Mr. Zhao of Sunzone said, “really depends on how much support the government gives.”
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