Energy Foundation China is a grantmaking charitable organization registered in California (formally separate from the U.S. Energy Foundation since 2019). It has been working in China since 1999, and is dedicated to China’s sustainable energy development. The Foundation’s vision is to achieve prosperity and a safe climate through sustainable energy. Its mission is to realize greenhouse gas emissions neutrality, world-class air quality, energy access, and green growth through transforming energy and optimizing economic structure. The Foundation works across seven fields: power, industry, transportation, cities, environmental management, low carbon economic growth, and strategic communications.
In an interview moderated by David Sandalow on April 10, 2023, Energy Foundation China President Zou Ji discusses the latest developments in the clean energy transition in China, the priorities of the Energy Foundation, and how the international community is doing in responding to climate change.
DAVID SANDALOW: Hi, my name is David Sandalow, and I’m at Columbia University at the Center on Global Energy Policy and on the board here at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. I am thrilled to be here with Zou Ji, who is president of Energy Foundation China and a distinguished leader in China on energy issues, on climate change issues. He was part of the Chinese delegation at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 and played a very important role there and has held many distinguished positions in this area.
Zou Ji, welcome to New York.
ZOU JI: Oh, thank you. Thank you, David.
SANDALOW: Could you just give us an update about what’s happening on climate change and energy issues in China? What’s most important right now?
ZOU: As you know, within China, we have worked for climate and energy transition with nonstop pace. And in the past few years, the Chinese government did launch the 1+N policy that that provides for a policy framework for climate issues, with one overarching framework to show the goal, the targets and the guiding principles, and also the key, prioritized areas.
And then together with that overarching framework, we have, we call it the N policy. That means sector by sector, themes by themes, changing from energy manufacturing, transport industry, building, etc., etc. And also education to support the transition to carbon neutrality over several decades, that’s something from a policy perspective.
And if you look at the real performance of the real economy, especially for energy, I think it has been very exciting, especially if you look at the development of renewable [energy]—I mean, solar and wind. So in the past three years, each year we increase the capacity of renewables—solar and wind—by over 120 gigawatts each year. And if we maintain that pace and if we are even able to enlarge that pace, it will be more and more promising for China to reach much higher capacity compared to NDC target. So it’s my dream to make that double compared to our NDC targets.
In fact, two or three years ago, I couldn’t imagine that. But after the real progress in market technology, in the cost of renewable generation and also in energy storage, in grid development, connectivity, long distance, super high voltage, direct current grid, I think, now we should adjust our imagination.
And besides, I would also mention energy efficiency. You might recall over 10 or 15 years ago we had a high tide of efficiency improvement at that time. But now I think China is stepping into another new era for efficiency improvement, which are very, very important for carbon neutrality. But this time the real driver would be digitalization of the economy, especially for industry, for manufacturing. So when full digitalization in those sectors, such as chemicals, cement, etc., we can reach, let me say, 10% to 40% of improvement of energy efficiency. Normally these will fade down or fade out. Coal used in those manufacturing sectors will contribute significantly to carbon reduction. So those are some things I have observed in my country.
SANDALOW: There’s so much to talk about. One particular topic I was wondering about as you were speaking is offshore wind in China, because so much of the Chinese population lives right along the coast. Do you think there’s potential for the growth of offshore wind in China? How is that going?
ZOU: Very, very huge potential. So let me tell you a very direct story that I experienced in the past two or three years. I remember when Lord Nicholas Stern told me, oh, UK, they reached a normal price of offshore wind power based on their power sector reform. And I felt very curious about that. I said, oh, let’s organize the dialog between China and the UK experts. And then we organized that, it should be in 2020. And then we heard a lot from UK colleagues there.
And one year after I said, oh, let’s organize another dialog, and suddenly I found that the total capacity of offshore wind power in China had become the top one in the world.
And furthermore, with several field trips, I also saw very, very rapid change of the cost, mainly because of the scale of the economy. I mean the size had become higher and higher, especially invited by several leading provinces, the top one or top two GDP provinces, like Guangdong province, Jiangsu Province, and Shandong province together with Zhejiang and Fujian and all those relatively richer provinces, they started the capital investment in offshore.
And furthermore, some of the provinces that I heard of, for example, Jiangsu Province and also Guangdong province, they are considering using offshore wind power to produce green hydrogen with seawater. But certainly, for the moment, they are now in the early stage to have a demo project or pilot project there. But I believe if offshore wind power had become cheaper and cheaper and richer and richer, this will very likely become true for hydrogen production.
SANDALOW: A final question. Could you just share with us your priorities at the Energy Foundation in China and what you’re working on there?
ZOU: Oh, yeah. In fact, the Energy Foundation in China, we have worked in China for about 24 years since 1999. So we are very proud to work in China with several milestones in the history.
One, renewables. We supported the launch of renewable [targets] in 2025 directly. Second, in energy efficiency, I mentioned just now, 14 to 15 years ago, we supported, within one or two years, to develop 100 energy efficiency standards for China to support China’s policy to improve energy efficiency.
The third milestone is electric vehicles. We supported a project with Tsinghua University, and this might be one of the earliest projects to incubate the idea of electric vehicles in Chin. And today, electric vehicles have become a very, very important driver for not only energy security, climate change, air quality, but also the economy itself.
And the latest milestone and long-term strategy, we worked in 2018 and 2019 to come up with the proposal for China to reach carbon neutrality by the middle of the century. And after that, we saw very happily that President Xi Jinping launched China’s carbon neutrality target by 2060.
And now, we are concentrating more on implementation of all the targets, all the policies, especially focusing on several prioritized area. Number one, a technological roadmap to achieve carbon peaking and the neutrality target. I mean, to look at what’s the optimized technology sector by sector and then put them together to see what’s the potential, what the speed of the pace of the process of the transition [is]. Number two, electrification. We believe it will be key for China to make deep decarbonization in power sector with higher and higher non-fossil fuel [energy] for power generation, together with electrification in industry, in transport and in building electrification.
And then the third area is to consider [how] to reshape the landscape and the portfolio of the future real estate development. Today, real estate is a carbon intensive sector. But we want to make it become a new energy sector. That means that we install solar in real estate, especially for those real estates around the big cities. And in rural areas, serving several hundred million population there, [we aim] to deliver clean and zero-emission energy to the farmers, to low-income group populations to improve their living standard. But in the meanwhile, to change our energy structure.
And furthermore, to make those distributing renewable energy contributions to the stability of the grid, rather than disturbances to the grid. The technology has been there, but our work is to make a pilot to develop a policy to support that.
Finally, international cooperation, and particularly given the current very challenging geopolitical circumstances, especially between China and the U.S. We believe that without the cooperation between China and the U.S., between business, academia and the governments of the two countries, there will be no way out to save the global climate. And we do need that kind of cooperation.
But we want to make something helpful to support Track II dialogues and cooperation between academia and academia, between businesses and businesses. So these are our priorities.
SANDALOW: Well, Professor Zou, thank you for joining us. Thank you for all your leadership on these issues over many years and delighted to see you here in New York at the offices of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.
ZOU: Thank you. I’m just looking forward to further competition between China and the U.S., between universities, companies, and even families.
SANDALOW: Thank you, that’s great. Thank you very much.
ZOU: Thank you.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.