Locke: Where will China get the energy it needs to meet its energy demands?

For Gary Locke, the son of Chinese immigrants who grew up to become governor of Washington state, President Obama’s Commerce Secretary, and the U.S. ambassador to his family’s homeland, the stark realities of China’s energy demands – and Washington’s potential role as a trade leader in meeting them – are both personal and professional.

In remarks to the National Bureau of Asian Research’s energy panel held in Seattle last month, Locke detailed the stark contracts between life in the oft-touted “modern China” and the realities of the rural Chinese countryside. Shortly after his election as governor in 1996, Locke took his parents back to the family village, where not much had changed since they last visited 50 years ago.

“It was really like stepping back into 1800s. The same house where my dad was born and my grandfather was born: no toilets, some houses had running water. Each home had a light bulb hanging from a cord — and in the back is where they cooked using wood kindling, coal briquettes, maybe a little electric cook top and that was it,” said Locke.

“This is how 47-45 percent of the population of China lives. This was not an anomaly. This was typical China: 45-47 percent of people in China live in rural parts of the country under these very same conditions,” he added.

Returning to the village in 2007, nothing had really changed. As ambassador, returning with his own children again in 2011 and 2014, the same scenario unfolded, leaving Locke to wonder what it would take to extend energy out to rural parts of China.

“Where would China get the energy it needs to raise the standard of living for the people of the countryside just to be on par with the people in the urban parts of China – the sprawling, gleaming cities – or even what we have here in America?” asked Locke. “Where would China get the energy it needs for these megacities its building?”

The reality is, China’s demand for energy is growing and is only expected to increase. As Locke noted, the International Energy Agency expects China’s electricity demand is estimated to grow by 46 percent over the next five years and will need to double by 2030.

And while Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a major greenhouse gas initiative in 2014 to cap carbon emissions by 2030 and have 20 percent of its energy come from renewables, the effort behind those numbers is staggering. According to Locke, that pledge will require either:

  • 67 times more nuclear power;
  • 30 times more solar power, or
  • 9 times more wind power.

As Locke noted, that means China would need a total of either 1,000 nuclear reactors, 500,000 wind turbines, or 50,000 solar farms just to meet this promise – approximately a $2 trillion initiative.

For America, and the Pacific Northwest, though, Locke sees this as a tremendous opportunity for trade, particularly energy trade, ranging from commodities to technology that ensures environmental efficiencies and clean up.

Currently, Washington state sits in a tenuous position with the prospect of two new terminals (Gateway Pacific in Bellingham and Millennium Bulk Terminals in Longview). Investments in these terminals would bolster exports of clean coal as well as other Washington commodities to the Pacific Rim, including China, Japan and Korea.

As the closest trade route to Asia, investments in Washington’s export capacity only stand to better Washington’s trade status and serve as a conduit for commodities and services to the Pacific Rim.

“Quite frankly,” said Locke, ”we need China to succeed in this Herculean endeavor, which really has great consequences for the entire world and certainly for the planet itself.”

View Ambassador Locke’s remarks to the NBR forum on North America-Asia Energy Trade below: