California and China Strengthen
Cleantech Ties as Trade War Smolders

Despite rocky trade relations,
California leaders are forging ahead
with efforts to collaborate with China
on low-carbon energy technologies.

CEC Chair David Hochschild at the Energy Internet Summit.
CEC Chair David Hochschild at the Energy Internet Summit.

“strengthening dialogue is the only way to promote a win-win future.”
— Yinong Zhao

CEC Chair David Hochschild at the Energy Internet Summit.
The Sichuan Energy Internet Research Institute at Tsinghua University.

As economic and technology development powerhouses, California and China have a unique opportunity to partner in building a clean energy future at home and abroad, Hochschild said.

CHENGDU, CHINA — At least a dozen cranes are visible from the Holiday Inn at Tianfu New Area, a state-designated development zone on the outskirts of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The Tianfu New Area is so new, in fact, that the streets and sidewalks below the towering construction equipment are virtually empty.

As Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have established themselves as epicenters for high-tech investment and innovation, the Chinese government has shifted its focus to building out a competitive technology ecosystem in this cloudy inland metropolis. Chengdu is already home to several large international corporations, including Dell and IBM. The Chinese tech giant Huawei operates a research center in Chengdu and recently rolled out multidimensional 5G network across the city.

Chengdu’s Tianfu New Area was approved in 2014 to serve as a model for sustainable urban development and a hub for strategic new industries. Now, it is where key stakeholders are concentrating efforts to expand their work on the “energy internet,” or the deep integration of energy and information technology, which was identified as a strategic focus area in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan.

In June, a group of prominent companies, government leaders, researchers and startups from both sides of the Pacific gathered at the Tianfu New Area convention center for the first annual Energy Internet Innovation and Entrepreneurship Summit.

“The energy internet has become a very important part of our strategy for power [sector] development: the integration of power architecture to increase the percentage of renewable energy in our energy mix as well as promote the efficient utilization of energy,” Yinong Zhao, deputy director of the Department of Power at China’s National Energy Administration, said in his opening remarks at the summit, communicated via translator.

The first day of the conference also marked the launch of Tsinghua University’s Energy Internet Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, a newly built research facility and co-working space equipped with a live power grid simulation testing system. The center — operated in partnership with the Oakland, California-based cleantech accelerator New Energy Nexus — also serves as launch pad for energy startups looking to do business in China.

Despite the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, California policy and business leaders have forged ahead with efforts to collaborate with China on the advancement of low-carbon energy technologies considered both financially lucrative and critical to mitigating the worst impacts of climate change.

U.S.-China relations have been on the rocks for over a year, with both countries imposing tariffs on billions of dollars worth of each other's goods. Top U.S. officials held a phone call with China's lead trade negotiator this week, and both parties said they remain committed to reaching a "phase one" trade agreement. But tensions remain high as past talks have ended in near-collapse.

“Obviously it’s a period of great tension right now between the U.S. and China,” said David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission (CEC), in an interview over breakfast in Chengdu. “That’s why it’s more important than ever that we’re here representing California, because we want a strong relationship and a strong partnership.”

“I think the ability to scale and innovate is incredibly strong in China and California,” he said. “I actually think it’s the most important strategic relationship on energy that there is right now.”