Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Market Savvy (The Hidden Friedman)

Tom Friedman profiles Shi Zhengrong, the seventh richest man in China today and head of a company that produces silicon photovoltaic solar cells in China's Sunshine Boys (fully available to Times Select subscribers).

Mr. Shi thinks, as I do, that renewable clean power — wind, solar, bio-fuels — is going to be the growth industry of the 21st century, and he wants to make sure that China and his company, Suntech Power Holdings, are the leaders. Only 43 years old and full of energy himself, Mr. Shi hopes to do for solar energy what China did for tennis shoes: drive down the cost so that millions of people who could not afford solar photovoltaic panels will be able to do so.

As an environmentalist, I wish him well. As an American, I worry that if we don’t start doing everything we can to develop our own clean power, we’re going to miss out on the green industrial revolution. Today, most of our hybrid cars are imported from Japan. Tomorrow, if Mr. Shi has his way, most of our solar panels will come from China.

What Mr. Shi understands is that China is going to have to go green. Its rivers and air are becoming so polluted it has no choice. In fact, as he and I spoke in his 66th-floor office in Shanghai, the air was so dirty you could barely make out the skyscrapers down the street. America, alas, still seems to think it has a choice in going green. So while China will be compelled to move into this industry, U.S. companies may or may not, depending on whether states, or Washington, require power providers to generate energy from renewables.

For years our brain-dead Congress thought it was helping our power companies and manufacturers by not imposing tough energy-efficiency standards on them. In fact, it was just helping some of them commit suicide. Congress’s idiotic decision not to impose higher mileage standards on U.S. carmakers helped Detroit miss the market and almost go bankrupt. China already has higher mileage standards for its autos than we do.

“People at all levels in China have become more aware of this environment issue and alternative energy,” said Mr. Shi. “Five years ago when I started the company people said: ‘Why do we need solar? We have a surplus of coal-powered electricity.’ Now it is different; now people realize that solar has a bright future. But it is still too expensive.”


China is setting high standards for renewables, but is still weak on enforcement. America is better at enforcement, but still weak on setting high standards. We need to get our act together, because eventually China will bring its enforcement in line with its regulations — or it won’t breathe. And when that happens, China’s emerging green power entrepreneurs could clean our clock in the clean power business.

This has been one of the things that perplexes me most about the typically business-minded Republicans who have their heads in the sand when it comes to the great business opportunities that alternative energy and biofuels present.


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