Green Business Opportunity in China: State of Green Business Forum 2010

China can be a great place for international companies interested in green business.

It's a matter of getting to know the right people, adapting to the culture and "getting over your fear of China," said Peggy Liu, who chairs the Joint U.S.-China Cooperation on Clean Energy, an NGO that seeks to change the way China makes and uses energy.

Liu, whose work earned her recognition as one of Time magazine's "Heroes of the Environment 2008," shared her insights about doing business in China at's State of Green Business Forum on Thursday in San Francisco.

The forum, the first of two with the second being held in Chicago on Tuesday, coincided with the release of the annual State of Green Business Report.

{related_content} Too often, business people see China in terms of absolutes -- friend or foe, for example. And in the world of green business, the country is often portrayed as a competitor at best -- and at worst an arch combatant -- with the U.S. and Europe in a struggle to dominate the clean energy industry.

Liu offered a different view. To be sure, China is struggling to redefine itself and its strategies for progress on many fronts, she said. But it's not a situation of China versus ... fill in the blank, she contends.

"China at war with climate change -- it's not about Sputnik," she said, referring to the space race between U.S. and Soviet Union in 1950s.

"It's about a horse race ... China is racing as fast as it can (toward clean energy) and there is an opportunity for all countries to jump on as a jockey and win together."

"China today is not the China of yesterday -- or even six months ago," Liu continued.

Drawing on her articles in a point-counterpoint exchange in Economist magazine last fall, Liu recited a string of statistics on China's rapid development including:

  • In the next 20 years, the country expects to build 50,000 new skyscrapers
  • China's state grid intends to build a strong smart grid by 2020
  • The country is on track to for its energy mix to include 15 percent renewables by 2020

With the growth surge in the country of 1.33 billion people has also come an increase in the ranks of the middle class and a demand for the material symbols of comfort -- namely more stuff and bigger houses, or as Liu put it, McMansions and designer goods.

Government officials have tried to counter that trend by urging the country "not to follow the West in its consumption patterns" in consumerism or use of energy, Liu said.

China has also launched a number of experiments in smart growth and clean energy to serve as models.

They include:

  • 40 eco-cities
  • 21 LED street light cities
  • 13 electric vehicle cities
  • 4 smart grid pilot cities

Amid those projects and pilots lie sweet spots for U.S. and European companies, she said.

"People ask me where are the opportunities and the answer is so very, very obvious to me," said Liu. "China is a manufacturing society. The U.S. and Western strengths are innovation, customers service and customization and integration."

Bringing those elements to China's efforts in clean energy can bring success to all parties involved, she said.

Other important points, she said, include:

  • Change can be made very quickly. "If you can talk to the right people, you can make things happen."
  • Change can also occur very quickly on a large scale. "By targeting a small group of decisionmakers and influencing them through education, you can bring about big changes."
  • Because of the silos that exist in the energy industry, fostering collaboration among key players in business and government can bring an all-around win. "If you can get all the green stakeholders together you can really change the game."

The main thing for companies in the U.S. and abroad to keep in mind is "there's a phenomenal opportunity to be at the inflection point of change in China," Liu said. "If you can get over your fear of China, there are partners on the ground like us who can help you."