Energy, the enviornment, sustainability, and China

Concept of the Week: Bio-luddite

Bio-luddite (n.) a person opposed to the introduction of new biological technologies, usually without regard to the scientific evidence regarding their safety.

Bio-luddism is nothing particularly new, but it is becoming more important as the rate of spread of biological innovations increases, as the rate of innovation increases, and as this becomes a matter of concern not just for a small number of markets, but for the globe.

China, which was one of the major beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, understands the value of genetic modification. What it has yet to do with any kind of credibility, though, is make a public case for the safety of genetically modified organisms separate from hand-wringing about the abuses of a small number of very large ag-tech companies. If the failure continues, bio-luddism in policy-making circles may eventually serve to slow or throttle competitiveness China’s biotech industry.

The Greenpeace China Coal Fail

Coming out of a long winter and into the pre-summer months (I daren’t call it “Spring,”), the season offers constant reminders to those of us living on the North China Plain* that China is far from solving its most serious air pollution problems. There are those, however, who live far outside of the Ring Roads who believe that things are a lot better and continue to improve.

Last year, ThinkProgress published an article under the breathless title “It Only Took Four Months for China to Achieve a Jaw-dropping Reduction in Carbon Emissions.” The article detailed a recent study by Greenpeace which noted that China reduced its coal use by 8% in the first four months of 2015 over 2014, resulting in a 5% drop in CO2 emissions. A Greenpeace analyst suggested that this shows that industrial output and thermal generation are decreasing, while use of renewables like hydro, wind, and solar are growing.

There are prima facie reasons to question Greenpeace’s excitement.

  1. Any reduction in coal use comes off of a very high base. China burned over 4.2 billion metric tons of coal last year, enough for two tons of coal for every living man, woman, and child in China, PLUS enough for three tons each for every man, woman, and child in the United States. While any reduction in the overall number is a good thing, China has a very long way to go.

  2. Greenpeace is using government data to support its narrative. Leave aside any general reservations about the Chinese government as a source of data: in this case alone, the government has an abiding interest in telling its people a positive story, and thus in massaging or falsifying the data. Greenpeace’s defense of the government statistics – that that the government gains nothing by revealing a drop in industrial output – is at worst inadequate and at best debatable, especially as the other side of those figures is the shift to the service sector. Further, I’d argue that the government is actually under quite heavy pressure to be seen to be doing something about pollution, and that it has much to gain by gaming the figures on coal use. When the source of your data has both motive and opportunity to play fast and loose with the truth, it behooves one to seek less intrinsically biased sources. †

  3. Similarly, there is no transparency as to methodology in collecting and analyzing these statistics, so we have no way of knowing if this came from a change in the way use is measured. Changing the way the game is scored is not an uncommon hammer in the Chinese statistics toolkit.

  4. There is no way to confirm or gainsay these statistics because there is no credible, disinterested third party with access to the information on which these statistics are based, or that can provide data from other sources against which to balance the conclusions.

  5. Even if we take these statistics as correct, there is little clarity as to what forces are driving the decline in coal use, so we are uncertain what caused them, and whether that cause is a one-off occurrence, a short-term phenomenon, or the harbinger of a genuine trend. If we do not look at wide range of factors, we cannot tell whether this was caused by uncommonly warm weather, a fall in the price of other energy sources, or a temporary decline in the economy caused by the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a services-based one.

If this is not sufficiently convincing that China’s coal use statistics may be unreliable, at about the same time the Greenpeace report, New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley published a damning report of revised Chinese government figures that raised estimates of Chinese coal use every year since 2000 by as much as 17%. The culprit: “gaps in data collection, especially from small companies and factories.”

Greenpeace did not have to rely on government data. Researchers who dug deeper into the economy to come up with estimates, like Akaya Jones at the United States Energy Information Administration in Washington, came up with estimates that were apparently much more reliable than the government’s original figures, and far more so than Greenpeace’s.

We often criticize the Chinese government for getting statistics wrong. Playing fast and loose with critical measurements is wrong, but we expect no less from a political system for whom the truth is whatever serves the nation’s rulers. Greenpeace, however, does not get a pas.

Perhaps the organization just wanted to turn out a report on China, was pressed for time, and threw this together. I can only hope this is the case, because there is another, less flattering explanation: that Greenpeace did this in order to curry favor with the Chinese government, to show that it could go along to get along. If this is the case, it would not only be inexcusable, it would also represent a betrayal of the organizations mission, a betrayal of its stakeholders, and an abdication from its role as an environmental watchdog.


*- Or even those of us who USED to live there, return frequently, and have family there.

† Greenpeace itself has no lack of detractors who question the organization’s data on other issues. Whether those criticisms are valid or not is moot: by using a questionable source of data in a high-profile research paper without even flagging the potential problems, Greenpeace opens its methodologies and conclusions on a range of issues to re-examination.


Concept of the Week: Urbanizing In Place

Urbanizing in placeconcept – the idea that China’s urbanization is not being driven entirely by migration from the countryside to the cities, but that large areas that Beijing’s statisticians might once have considered “rural” are now considered “urban.”

In-place urbanization could occur in one of three scenarios.

The physical area of a municipality has been expanded to include what was once surrounding countryside.

In the second scenario, a village that was once considered part of the countryside has now grown into a town that a demographer or statistician would now classify as urban.

In the third scenario, a group of villages in a given area are considered to be conglomerated as a single administrative entity and reclassified as a single town.

In these cases, China’s urbanization is taking place without migration, and presents a different set of policy, marketing, and personal challenges and opportunities than classical migration-based urbanization.

China and “Datathermal Energy”

Hutong West
Letting the Sunshine In
0909 hrs.

Much of my March was spent working with clients who are thinking through some of the issues facing the growing data center market in China. For the uninitiated, a “data center” is a place that houses anywhere from one to tens of thousands of servers. This blog sits in a data center, your bank information sits in a data center, there are a lot of them, and these places are growing.

Little wonder. One delightful quote from suggests why.

“From the year 2003 and working backwards to the beginning of human history, we generated five exabytes–that’s 5,000,000,000 GB – of information.

By last year, we were cranking out that much data every two days.

By next year, we’ll be doing it every 10 minutes.”

That quote was from two years ago. Draw the curve in your mind, and you can figure that, conservatively, today we could be generating five exabytes of data every five minutes. Not all of that is going to sit in phones, laptops, external hard drives, thumb drives, or those little SD cards that we stick in our digital cameras. Much of it has to sit in data centers.

The Great Heat Sink

Which is fine, until you consider that data centers suck energy the way blue whales suck krill: in massive quantities, and with large amounts of undesirable waste at the end of the process. In the case of data centers, that waste comes in the form of heat, which then demands more energy to power cooling, which in turn generates heat. The bigger data centers get, the more heat we are talking about. And data centers are getting quite large indeed, measured in millions of square feet of servers stacked like so much electronic cord wood.

Some data centers have started addressing heat as a resource, rather than a waste-product: IBM’s Swiss data center heats a pool; Telehouse in the UK is heating homes in London’s Docklands district; and Notre Dame’s Center for Reserch Computing is heating the flowers of a local municipal greenhouse with the heat from a rack of high-performance computing nodes.

Not everyplace where there are data centers needs heat, though. Some places simply need energy. As any engineer will tell you, where there is heat, there is potential energy. The key will be to capture enough heat so that it can be efficiently turned into energy, for example through steam turbines. Energy generated like this – through the waste heat of data centers, we will call “data-thermal energy.”

Data-Thermal China

China is a natural place for the development of data-thermal energy. The country is early enough in the cycle of development for data centers to start designing its largest server farms to capture and channel heat efficiently. And scale will not be an issue in China. Leaving out government-run data centers entirely, some commercial data centers, like one 6.3 million square-foot beast under construction in Langfang just outside of Beijing, will have more floor space than the Pentagon.

The ability to capture and use waste heat efficiently also opens the prospect of cutting down on air-conditioning costs. If the heat can simply be blown – or sucked – away from the servers and into a central collection point for energy generation, the need to actually cool the air should abate a bit.

There is considerable engineering work to be done, but this is a worthy (if not essential) direction of thinking for the people designing and growing China’s server farms. It will demand imagination and discipline: the old way of doing things – stack ’em high, chill ’em down, and blow the hot air out the window – is cheap and pervasive. As the costs of energy grow and sustainability becomes more important, however, Big Data will need to start seeing itself as a utility, not just a customer.

How the U.S. Senate Handed the Climate Talks to China

In the Hutong
Sushi for Dinner
1713 hrs.

A spate of conferences, clients in from out-of-town, and paid writing assignments has kept Silicon Hutong quiet of late, but that’s set to change as of now, at least for the next couple of weeks.

A quick one to get going and for your weekend reading: a superb article in The New Yorker that displays in painful detail the dealmaking, egos, self-dealing, and trans-branch communications failures that pulled a critical piece of climate change legislation off of the national agenda this year. Regardless of how you might feel about climate change, unless you have spent some time inside the beltway and are comfortable or fatalistic about the process, you are certain to be either alarmed or disgusted by what you read.

You can read the article and write this off as just another dysfunction of the American polity, an explanation of why it is difficult to forge a workable coalition around any major government initiative regardless of how much each side gives away to make it happen.

Yet this article raises another, more salient point. If the United States cannot commit itself to policies to reduce carbon emissions even with a sitting Democratic President and Congress, how can Washington hope to lead the world in that direction? And if American cannot forge such a coalition, in a nation that by any account could afford to wean itself at least partially off of carbon, how can we expect China and the teeming emerging nations of the world to do so?

There are villains aplenty in this tale: Congress, special interests, the Obama administration, or the American consumer. Casting blame is not the pressing issue. It is this: the United States has surrendered its role as a global leader in one of the most important issues of our time, leaving a vacuum to be filled by a nation or nations with a very different set of interests.

As we count down to the next round of climate talks in Cancún at the end of November, America goes in as a lame duck, and China is in a position to forestall any U.S. initiatives at those talks merely by holding a mirror to the U.S. ambassador. Watch China take a very active and vocal role in this round. And if you are frustrated about the outcome, before you make China the heavy, call your Senator and find out where he/she stood on the Kerry/Graham/Lieberman bill.

Technology and China’s Offshore Farms

In the Hutong
Thinking “Tortillas”
1433 hrs.

Analysis of China’s resource dependence – a primary driver of the nation’s effort to extend its commercial ties overseas and to create an expeditionary People’s Liberation Army – tends to focus on mineral wealth. But in a superb analysis of China’s growing food imports, T. Marc Schober, who blogs at Farmland Forecast, calls to our attention how strategic commodities are now starting to include corn, soybeans, and even meat.

The article is a worthy read by itself, but the part that hooked me was this:

…China committed $5 billion for agricultural development in Africa in 2008. China is sending expatriate farmers to Africa to cultivate the land and export the grain directly back home to ensure a consistent supply of grains. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, over one million Chinese are farming in Africa dispersed throughout 18 countries.

We could wax philosophical and talk about the growing importance of Chinese peasants as an export commodity, or about how Americans offshore manufacturing while Chinese offshore their farming, but we would be missing the point.

At some stage, the traditional labor-intensive agricultural practices that China has employed will not be adequate for its offshore farms. The need for more advanced farming methods and hardware designed to increase yields in water-constrained environments is going to grow. All of this is to suggest that China’s grain giants (like China Cereals and Oils Import and Export Corporation, COFCO, the Archer-Daniels Midland of China) or their contracted suppliers (also Chinese-owned) are likely to need to make major investments in agricultural technology in the coming five years.

Some of those investments will go to global leaders in green revolution technologies, like Israel’s Netafim, but in the long run China will need to develop its own AgTech giants, if for no other reason than a reluctance to spend billions on foreign-supplied tech that will just be put on a boat for Africa.

Just as we have watched alternative energy companies grow in China, I expect to see a wave of AgTech firms emerge in the coming decade, supplying not only local needs but also the growing demand from China’s offshore farms.

This all assumes not only growing demand in China, but also that China will be unable to fulfill its requirements more economically using standard imports. The pressure is on the commodity-producing nations to keep costs below China’s own offshore resources.

Plug/PSA: Shanghai AmCham’s 2010 Sustainability Conference

Beijing Airport Expressway
Counting the Mercedes Sedans
1157 hrs.

It is that time of year again, and the folks at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai have put together a more-impressive-than-normal slate of speakers for their 2010 Conference being held in September. The topic this year is Green Cities: A Call to Action.

This is a profoundly important topic for China specifically, but for the emerging markets and developing world in particular. Scientists are still trying to get their heads around the environmental effects of a billion and a half people (between China and India alone) moving to cities in the next few decades. Mitigating those effects is going to require more than band-aid, single-system solution. What is becoming clear is that cities the way we have been building them for the last 150 years cannot be the cities we live in a century from now.

The Shanghai conference looks set to start a debate about which way this needs to go. Confirmed speakers include:

• Mark Ginsberg, Senior Executive, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
• Christine Gregoire, Governor of the U.S. State of Washington
• Hunter Jiang, CEO, GCL Solar
• David Leonhardt, Economics Reporter, The New York Times
• Gene Lupia, President, Environmental Services, CH2M HILL
• Gary Rieschel, Founder & Managing Director, Qiming Ventures
• Jonathan Woetzel, Director, McKinsey & Company
• Kevin Wale, President & Managing Director, General Motors China

Expected Chinese officials include:

• Liu Yajun, the Chief Commissioner for Foreign Investment of MOFCOM
• Lu Zhushan, the Governor of Zhejiang province
• Fu Zhihuan, Chairman of the Finance Committee of the 10th National People’s Congress
• Han Wenke, Director General, Professor, Energy Research Institute, National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) & Co-Chairman, U.S.-China Clean Energy Forum

While on the one hand the participants seem uniformly “establishment,” I would argue that it is going to require the involvement of entities of these sizes to make green cities something more than a graduate student’s wet dream.

My understanding is that there are still some seats available for the conference, and you can find them (and more information) at <a href=”

Talking Green

Second Ring Road
Trying to avoid looking at the traffic
1150 hrs.

Thomas Malthus once told us that as a race we are doomed because the planet could not grow enough food to support our exploding numbers. He was right, of course, until a sequence of changes in the way food is grown, produced, packaged, and distributed altered the equation. Malthus was, in effect, trumped by technology.

We now face a dilemma that echoes Malthus’ fear. What climate change implies is that as a race we are doomed because the planet cannot support the lifestyles to which we aspire. Just as Malthus challenged us to chose between reproduction and our future, today’s climatologists and other scientists challenge us to choose between the way we live and the well-being of the human race and the planet.

These are not choices we want to make.

The promise of green technology is that we will not have to make those choices – not right away, at least, and perhaps never. Six billion people will be able to live – if not like late 20th Century Americans, at least a lot better than they live today, all without sacrificing the future of the planet, of our race, and of our families.

It’s a huge ask. And nowhere is there a greater need for greentech to live up to its promise than right here in China. It is here, after all, where the innovations are likely to have their largest market. And it is China’s manufacturing capacity and surfeit of engineering headcount where many of the world’s green products are likely to be produced.

All of which serves to make the Greentech: A Call To Action conference organized by The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and The Asia Society on September 7-8 probably THE single most important gabfest of the year in China (apart from the National People’s Congress, of course.)

Yes, the lineup of speakers is stellar. Yes, the topics are lean-forward-in-your -seat compelling.

But if you are like me, you don’t really go to conferences for what’s on the program. You go for the conversation, for the discussions that take place in between, during, and around the sessions. The Shanghai Chamber’s greentech forum looks unusually attractive in this regard, and I’m petitioning The Party Secretary for permission and funding to go.

Personally, I’m still in the middle of a long-term dissection of greentech, it’s promise, its realities, and where the interesting stuff is really happening. Once I start getting a comfortable handle on it all (in other words, once I’m reasonably sure I will not be talking out of my backside when I have something to say), I’ll be posting more.
In the meantime, take a moment to look at the website for the Shanghai event, and if you are in town, make it a point to go.

Why Land Reform is a Tech Opportunity

In the Hutong

There’s something about a high-fiber snack…

16:23 hrs.

In the flurry of news about plans to reform land use in China, much of the coverages focuses on the new potential for Chinese farmers to either pay to farm the land of others, or to indeed expand their own plots by renting more land, thus building scale and offering the greater potential for profit. I think a lot of people noted this, and after checking to ensure that neither Monsanto, John Deere, nor DuPont was in their stock portfolio, dutifully forgot it.

There is, however, more to this story.

Not Your Father’s Land Reform

While the idea of land reform gets folks in the agriculture business dreaming about China’s vast farmlands changing from a patchwork of tiny plots to a more orderly quilt of massive farms, that dream is both unlikely and overrated. The omnivorous Tom Barnett notes an important point Callum MacLeod makes in his article in USA Today:

“China is the opposite of the USA, which has an abundance of capital and land. In China, labor is abundant, but it is short of land and rural capital, [said Li PIng, of the Seattle-based Rural Development Institute.]

In short, don’t count on Hebei starting to look like the upper San Joaquin Valley anytime soon.

But let’s take a closer look at Li’s point.

  • China has abundant labor. Yes, and that is not likely to go away soon, massive urbanization notwithstanding. America has under 6 million people living and working on farms. China has around 700 million. You could literally cut China’s farm population by 90% and still have too many farmers to replicate the efficiencies of U.S. farms.
  • China is short of land. Yes, and that is not likely to change anytime soon, either, unless China plans to invade and cultivate the Siberian steppes. Whether taken as a ratio of land under cultivation to the total national land mass, or as a ration of arable land to population, Chinese agriculture is land-deficient.
  • China is short of rural capital. Yes, it is now. This, however, unlike the previous two conditions, can change. And therein lies the real opportunity behind China’s land reform.

AgriBusiness with Chinese Characteristics

Regardless of how much you change China’s agricultural land use rights, you’re always going to have too many people cultivating too little land, which means that the future of Chinese agriculture is not about vast wheat fields or free-range beef ranching. You have to find another model.

At the most basic level, this means that China’s farms will find prosperity with crops that demand a great deal of human attention, and that will capture market prices that will allow farmers to compensate their workers accordingly. But more labor working fewer valuable plants is only half of the answer. There is a shortage of water available to farmers in a growing proportion of the country. Air pollution, soil degraded by poor irrigation practices, and lousy infrastructure still hamper the industry.

At the same time, consumer demand for higher value farm products means that for most farmers their real opportunities lie with crops they are not accustomed to cultivating. With some exceptions, China’s successful farmer of the future will be a small- or medium-sized agribusiness focusing on high-value cash crops or horticulture (flowers and foliage.)

So when Li Ping talks about rural capital, we need to think beyond cash: China’s farmers also need equipment to address environmental and infrastructure challenges, as well as the know-how to get the most out of whatever size plots of land they can cobble together under land reform. Which, in turn, means that land reform is the first step to liberating the value of Chinese farmland, rather than the last.

Chinese AgTech

I would love to say that technology is a panacea that will clear up all of these challenges, but if I did, I’d be wrong. Nonetheless, there is a growing range of opportunities for technology to help turn the more entrepreneurial of China’s farmers into agribusinessmen. Just a few of these include:

* Drip irrigation: China’s shortage of fresh water is already bad, and it is going to get worse. Chinese farms will only be sustainable if they use exactly as much water (and fertilizer, and nutrients) as they need, and no more. Drip irrigation is the best, most practical solution today. As aeroponic techniques develop beyond space travel and dorm-room cultivation of cannabis sattiva, they may eventually supplement drip irrigation, but likely only for specialized applications.

* Greenhouses and Nurseries: beyond the vagaries of pests and weather, the challenges of China’s environment is likely to drive the production of cash crops – not just flowers – into greenhouses. We see a lot of this around major cities and in centers like Kunming, but expect this to expand. This involves more than just covered farmlands: it also means temperature monitors and controls, irrigation systems, air-quality management systems, and harvesting.

* mAgriculture: few Chinese farmers can afford laptops, but many more can afford mobile phones to monitor their crops, the weather, and market prices, as well as to take orders, capture opportunities to sell at higher prices, and make payments on supplies and micro-loans. Farmers will need inexpensive yet rugged and waterproof handsets with large buttons, long battery life, and possibly even solar charging capability. They will also need easy-to-use service bundles to include information access and mobile banking.

* Training: there is just no way to get millions of farmers into schools. Raising skill levels in new crops, new tools, and agricultural economics is going to involve a combination of traditional low-tech methods and some experimental efforts in using remote training via satellite TV and possibly the Internet.

* Finance: once you have the land, you need the cash to develop it and to finance your first crop. Traditional methods of agricultural banking in China, including banks and farm co-operatives, won’t be enough. Micro-finance, in all of its forms, can be most economically administered using technology. That doesn’t mean a computer on every farm, but it does mean loan officers in rural areas equipped with at least hand-helds to help manage payments and collections.

These only touch the surface, and there will be specific opportunities around specialized crops, but you get the point. As we slide gently into global recession, technology firms have an opportunity with Chinese land reform to begin developing – or at least researching – how to deliver products to help solve some of the challenges implicit in China’s next green revolution.

Cough, Cough: Bang, Bang

Starbucks Pacific Century Plaza

Noticeably fewer locals, noticeably more visitors

1355 hrs.

Recreational pyrotechnics are as integral a part of Chinese holidays as gratuitous gifting, constant partying, and excessive drinking. Catastrophic factory accidents and an annual toll of those killed and wounded by fireworks have driven the government to occasional fits of regulation. Each time, however, regulators back off, responding either to a general backlash or to implicit pressure from the massive cottage industry that has grown up around fireworks in China.

Officials now have another reason to rethink fireworks: air quality.

Oooh, Pretty colors…(wheeze)…

In a July 4th article in the Los Angeles Times, Marla Cone notes:

Scientists in India found that airborne barium increased by a factor of 1,000 after a huge fireworks

display there. Strontium, which creates red, and copper, which forms a blue hue, can also be toxic.

“The use of heavy metals like barium or strontium should be reduced or, if possible, avoided,” said

Karina Tarantik, a chemist at the University of Munich in Germany whose lab is working on cleaner


Much of the new research has been propelled by concern over perchlorate, which has been used since

the 1930s to provide oxygen for pyrotechnic explosions.

Perchlorate, which has contaminated many drinking water supplies from military and aerospace

operations, can impair the function of the thyroid gland by blocking the intake of iodide. Fetuses are

most at risk, because thyroid hormones regulate their growth.

Because of legal restrictions on the sale and use of fireworks – not to mention some understandable paranoia about wildfires – Los Angeles on July 4 cannot compare with any Chinese city on a national holiday. Nonetheless, the Southern California Air Quality Management District (AQMD) notes that on July 4 particulate levels in L.A. increase 100-fold and do not return to normal levels for nearly 24 hours.

One wonders what a similar measurement would render in Chinese cities, especially in the winter months when weather seems to trap particulates in a layer near the ground.

A Technology Solution

The article explains how one heavy user of fireworks, Disneyland, has turned to the Los Alamos National Laboratory for help in developing cleaner fireworks. With some experimentation, the lead materials chemists took an “entrepreneurial leave” from the lab to found DMD Systems and produce the cleaner fireworks. Voila. Cleaner fireworks for about the same cost as other US-made fireworks.

Of course, these are much more expensive than the Chinese-made types, which are well on their way to being branded “dirty” fireworks.

The entire issue points up another opportunity for China’s domestic innovation efforts. If a tiny US company can come up with fireworks that produce mostly water, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, there is no reason that China cannot turn its efforts to finding a substitute for its gunpowder-based pyrotechnics. I would bet that a determined effort could do better than DMD Systems.

That would help preserve a robust export industry (98% of consumer fireworks and 80% of professional fireworks used in the US are made in China), but it would also head off the growing issue of fireworks and air pollution in China. Yes, I know, there is an emotional attachment to using gunpowder because, after all, that was a Chinese invention.

But it is time for China to re-invent gunpowder. A billion sets of lungs depend on it.

Responsa: E-Waste, Keeping Our Own?

Jingshun Road
Watching all of the workers return from holiday
1518 hrs.

Spenser left a comment on an earlier Hutong post about processes that are being developed for managing the growing piles of discarded electronics and computers.

I mentioned in the note that China’s rust belt northeast would be a logical place to seed China’s own recycling/demanufacturing/remanufacturing and other environment-related sectors.

Spenser correctly noted that it would be silly – and wasteful – to set up such facilities in China and ship our waste there.

He’s right, so I should clarify my point.

No way should America move its e-waste to China – the idea is to recycle the e-waste near source, then transport the resulting raw materials to wherever they should go. This ensures the best use of energy in the process, and also keeps third-world countries from getting the impression (correct or not) that we are exporting our garbage to them. Doing so tends to piss off the natives and trash our global relationships. (No pun intended.)

At the same time, I am profoundly aware of the NIMBY factor in all of this, and the possibility that a highly motivated group of people in the US or Europe could discover some implicit dangers (real, speculative, or imagined) to having such processing take place in one’s neighborhood. If that happens, electronics recycling will wind up someplace else.

Naturally, this would be a shame, not only because it would waste energy and turn other countries into our garbage dumps, but because such activity could be far better regulated in the US, and location in developed economies would not only drive innovation in process, it would ensure the fastest diffusion of those innovations through the recycling industry.

(Indeed, I think this will be a driver for manufacturers toward “design-for-recycling” and “design-for-remanufacture.)

All of that said, I still see recycling, demanufacturing, and remanufacturing as major potential industries for Asia generally and China specifically, if for no other reason than Asia is a major consumer of electronics in its own right, thus a growing source of e-waste. As the pile of discarded mobile phones, computers, televisions, and the like expands here, the case to process it grows as well.

After all, nobody wants to see containers of Asian e-waste landing at U.S. ports, either, now do they?

Olympic Skies

In the Hutong
Playing with my new iPod Touch
1420 hrs.

Over at The New York Times, Jim Yardley, Joseph Kahn, Keith Bradsher, and David Barboza are ten articles into a periodic series entitled “Choking on Growth,” covering how China is responding to its environmental challenges. The most recent is Jim’s piece dealing with the challenges of cleaning up Beijing’s air for the Olympics and beyond. The real challenge, Yardley notes, is the long-term problem.

Read the full series, including:

  • The superb if depressing overview article;

Making Old Jets Green Again

Lobby of the China World Hotel, Beijing
Surrounded by the Chindians
1439 hrs.

It’s getting to the point where you can’t go a day without hearing another recycling story. This pictorial essay on CNET today walks us through the recycling of airliners that have exceeded their economical service life.

(The whole concept of “economical service life” is, of course, highly relative. I think Aloha Airlines is flying 737-200s that are nearly 40 years old, while much younger aircraft have already gone through the shredder.)

The U.S. leads in this field because a) there are lots of large surplus airports in relatively remote areas, and b) the country has a highly developed recycling industry, and c) the costs of getting chunks of old planes to said recycling facilities – and getting recycled material to customers – is still low.

Let’s see: South Asia recycles ships. America recycles planes. What about China going into the business of recycling railroad rolling stock?

Anyway, what is interesting is that products made from recycled materials are now no longer just paper and beer cans. There are companies coming up with ways to use recycled wood, rubber, and even carbon fiber composites. The green/sustainability direction the world economy is taking has created new incentives for the recycling business to invest in new technologies.

If recycling is a growing business, one that is ready to pay for innovations, it is clearly another direction in which China could consider investing its “independent innovation” efforts.

Solar Technology May Finally Be Ready to Take

Starbucks @ Fortune Plaza Beijing
Realizing that coffee is the new opium
0930 hrs.

Just as Silicon Valley was the nursery of the transistor industry, the microchip business, and the personal computer, it appears that the fertile ground at the south end of the San Francisco Bay will also nurse CleanTech.

The San Jose Mercury News is reporting that San Jose based Nanosolar is now shipping a thin film solar cell that can produce a watt of electricity for less that $1 – cheaper, apparently, than coal (at least in developed economies.)

While the American in me is delighted that the product is made in California, the businessman in me thinks that if Nanosolar could produce its solar panels in China, they could drop the cost to the point when even Chinese companies start to see he virtue of adopting solar over coal.

They may be here sooner than later. Despite a huge local subsidy to put their HQ and first production facility in San Jose, I suspect they are going to find demand exceeding their 430 megawatt annual capacity fairly soon. With rivals setting up here, China is probably an inevitable part of their plan.

Congratulations, Nanosolar. Get through that IPO (which we just know is coming) and then come swing by China and start looking for factory sites. When you come through Beijing, we’re buying lunch.