SHANGHAI -- When President Obama last year proposed a "historic commitment" to empower Americans with a clean energy education program, his speech appeared to have reminded Chinese leaders of their own educational needs.
A few months later, China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, gave a speech in Beijing, calling for creating more world-class scientists here to work in cutting-edge fields. And clean energy topped Wen's list.
But their similar pitches had different outcomes: The proposed $170 million American energy education program, called "RE-ENERGYSE," is still on the launching pad in Congress, which rejected it last year and appears to be in an even more tightfisted mood this year. Meanwhile, in China, newly established programs focused on clean energy are sprouting on campuses like bamboo shoots after the rain.
After it led the world in clean energy investment last year and manufactured about one-third of the global solar panels and wind turbines, China has been moving full-speed toward creating more clean energy professionals, from Ph.D.-level engineers to well-trained technical operators.
"The Chinese government and Chinese firms are using a number of different strategies to attract and develop talent in clean energy," said Kelly Sims Gallagher, an associate professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School who follows China's energy and climate policy.
Moreover, Western technology giants have come to help. As their research centers mushroom in China, they are fostering Chinese researchers in advanced clean energy technologies.
While China may not be at the cutting edge in terms of having the best talent yet, its knowledge base in clean energy is growing rapidly, said Gallagher. And compared with Europe and the United States, China has a key advantage in aiming to deliver a generation of new professionals and workers who are literate in the demands of clean energy. "No other nation has so many engineering professionals [as China has], and so this provides a strong foundation for development," she said.
Such development can speed up the further expansion of China's clean energy industry. "Barring any significant policy changes by other nations, China-based companies are poised to increasingly dominate as clean-tech employers," according to an October report from Clean Edge, a research firm in Portland, Ore. The report points out that this year, China already dominated a list of top 10 global clean-tech public companies in terms of total employment.
Hunting for more students and reassigning professors
For years, universities in China have had clean energy research, but most of them had never bothered to develop outreach programs. That changed earlier this year.
In March, China's Ministry of Education urged universities to establish more educational programs focused on advanced technologies, clean energy among them. Less than half a year later, dozens of universities set up clean energy faculties and scheduled to enroll undergraduates starting from 2011.
Meanwhile, Chinese universities that already offered degree programs in clean energy are expanding student enrollment. Lin Boqiang, director of China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University -- which provides studies in clean energy economics -- said their enrollment in 2010 alone almost caught up with the total enrollment number in the previous years.
But there is a downside to this sudden rise. Lin mentioned that most universities found it difficult to come up with enough high-qualified professors to lecture in clean energy, adding that many had to be converted from other majors. U.S. experts report that China's crash training program has run into other peculiar problems. For example, only a small percentage of recruits for automotive engineering courses know how to drive (ClimateWire, Nov. 24).
But Beijing is ready to seek help from outside. The China-E.U. Institute for Clean and Renewable Energy (ICARE), a multimillion-dollar cooperative education project signed two years ago, is a case in point.
According to the project's press materials, clean energy experts from the two sides will work arm-in-arm at central China's Huazhong University of Science and Technology, where the ICARE faculty is located. Over the next five years, their endeavors will generate 650 postgraduates and retrain 1,000 energy professionals for the local industry. And this year, the university said, more than 60 students have already registered for the courses.
"Such cooperation will improve China's ability in training clean energy talents, in terms of quality and quantity," commented Wang Zhengyu, ICARE project officer from the Delegation of the European Union to China.
Scrambling to build a green labor force
Unlike its newfound passion for degree programs, Beijing gave little attention to vocational training in clean energy, but a local business has taken this matter into its own hands.
Himin Solar, China's largest solar water heater maker, has put over $57 million into building a private vocational school. Based in northern China's Dezhou city, Himin Solar Engineering & Technology College imparts manufacturing skills to young Chinese and helps them gain hands-on experience through internships at the company's production lines and sales agencies.
"China's solar industry grows fast ... but it lacks vocational programs to create skilled work force that the industry needs badly," Zhang Qingyu, the college's president, said of why Himin Solar opened its wallet to support education.
"Lagging in clean energy education could eclipse China's competitiveness in the global race during the next decade," claimed Zhang. Already, China's solar industry productivity is under threat. In the past three years, the industry's in-and-out revolving door has been turning fast, with an up to 60 percent employee turnover rate, Zhang said. That's mainly because those coming from different fields failed to bring the needed technical background, he added.
To groom more Chinese to become solar energy professionals, Zhang's college provides a three-year vocational program free of charge and offers scholarships to those from poor families. In 2009 alone, Himin Solar poured more than $2.5 million into education incentives. With such support, the number of students there climbed to nearly 2,300 this year, up from fewer than 100 in 2007, when the college had just started.
Himin Solar may have a significant role to play in filling the green-collar labor pool, but it is not alone. Other Chinese clean energy companies have also taken action. LDK Solar, a NYSE-listed solar photovoltaic producer, provides technical training courses at a local college in central China.
Getting help from the U.S. and Europe
Besides its direct support for education, China has found shortcuts to get the country's brightest minds more quickly engaged in clean energy innovation.
China, which recently surpassed the United States to take the position as the world's largest energy consumer, declared that 15 percent of its power supply should come from renewable energy by 2020. Such market potential, together with cash-rich local manufacturers who are hungry for technology, is luring Western companies to come and launch research centers.
That, in turn, helps Chinese get trained by international giants and acquire knowledge of the world's more advanced clean energy technologies.
"[General Electric Co.'s] huge research center in Shanghai's Pudong district is staffed by smart young Chinese engineers and scientists, and they are getting lots of practical training by working for GE," said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Along with the GE team that currently tests materials used to make solar panels, "there has been a lot of international investment and effort to develop China's clean energy education," said Turner.
The latest news came from Denmark's Vestas, a world leader in wind energy. In October, Vestas celebrated the establishment of its new research center in Beijing.
The ceremony was attended by Cao Jianlin, vice minister of China's Ministry of Science and Technology, who welcomed the new center as it "brings in world's leading technology as well as focusing on fostering local talents."