China surges forward in renewable energy research

Increasing lead over US and Europe may raise questions over who controls future of green technology

June 9, 2019
Source: Getty

China is pulling ahead of Europe and the US in renewable energy research, prompting questions about the geopolitical implications of its becoming dominant in such technology.

According to figures from Elsevier’s Scopus database, China overtook the collective output of European Union nations in 2017 on energy research related to renewables, sustainability and the environment.

Its total 2017 output of 13,000 papers represented a growth rate of 260 per cent since 2012, when it trailed both EU countries and the US. The data show that the US published almost half as much as China in 2017 – 7,600 publications. EU countries produced almost 12,300 papers.

China’s growing research influence in renewable energy goes beyond the sheer volume of publications.

In 2017, almost 8 per cent of its research in the area was in the top 1 per cent of cited work, compared with 5.6 per cent for the US and 3.5 per cent for the EU.

China’s increasing focus on renewable energy was highlighted in a major report published earlier this year by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena).

It says that although China still had a major dependency on fossil fuels, “no country has put itself in a better position to become the world’s renewable energy superpower”.

“In aggregate, it is now the world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles, placing it at the forefront of the global energy transition,” the report adds.

The ramifications could be profound, the paper goes on, as trade and political influence shift away from the main fossil fuel-producing nations.

“Countries that do not control key energy technologies may become heavily dependent on the few countries and companies that do,” it says, noting that mobile technology is already concentrated in a handful of global companies, including China’s Huawei.

Daniel Scholten, an assistant professor at the Delft University of Technology who was part of the research panel that supported the Irena report, said China’s approach to renewable energy had been “smart” as it was innovating in technology across the board from electricity generation to storage. This could then potentially be exported overseas “as a package”, giving it a trade advantage.

However, he added that it was “hard to prove” that China had political motivations behind its drive on green energy. There was no barrier to other nations developing their own renewable technology, and China had strong domestic motives, such as a need to achieve more energy self-sufficiency and tackle urban pollution, he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Scholten said that the shale gas boom in the US was likely to be a key reason why America was falling behind.

“There has been a bit of a windfall for finding all these resources and exploiting them, and this has lowered domestic [electricity] prices” and led to people in the US asking, “Why do you need consumers to move to renewables now?”

In the long run, he suggested, renewable energy – particularly solar power – could be “good for geopolitical stability” because it can be generated locally by small operators and households.

This would change “the whole energy landscape” and “might end part of this game” in which the countries that have major influence over markets reliant on fossil fuels can wield power over others.

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