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Cooking with Gas

September 14, 2009
by Lisa Margonell

Since 1988, Mark Levine, group leader of the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has been doing the highly technical work of measuring and assisting China’s progress on energy efficiency. But one evening last April, he carried out his duties by fussing over his backyard BBQ. While Levine prepped the salmon, Zhou Dadi, whom Levine described as “the most knowledgeable person about energy in China in the world,” scurried around cleaning deck chairs with paper towels. After 20 years of working together, Levine and Zhou testify to the deep relationship between California and China.

As Zhou and Levine prepared a cookout for the two dozen Californians and Chinese who work on China projects at the lab, I asked how they’d become friends. “We found some consensus,” answered Zhou cryptically. Zhou has for many years headed China’s Energy Research Institute and is a Senior Associate with the Beijing arm of the Carnegie Endowment Energy and Climate Program. He has a very dry sense of humor, which he intensifies by screwing the features of his face together to look very serious just before grinning like a cut-up.

Zhou was deeply involved in the energy efficiency program that China began in the early 1980’s. By that decade’s end, the country had engineered a historic breakthrough in energy efficiency: holding use to half the growth in GDP.

In 1988, Zhou and his colleagues wanted more expertise in energy efficiency policy and analysis, so they invited three scientists from LBNL to attend a conference in Nanjing. Mark Levine, who was head of the lab’s Energy Analysis Program, remembers the event as “stultifying.” But when he heard the numbers on energy use and GDP he was stunned: Not only had China broken the rules of energy and development, China’s ability to turn energy into GDP was growing by 5 percent a year, faster than industrialized economies.

Zhou asked him to stay after the conference to draw up a memorandum of cooperation between LBNL and the Chinese government. China’s request came at a time when the Reagan administration was sharply curtailing U.S. support for energy efficiency. From the beginning of his career, Levine realized there was antagonism towards the concept, in part because of fears that it would dampen economic growth, and because of lobbying from the energy supply industry.

At Berkeley, Levine was part of a community of engineers and scientists who had rallied around physicist Art Rosenfeld, founder of the Center for Building Science. “We were not advocates. Our analytic work had to be sound and unbiased, but we believed in what we were doing,” remembered Levine, who began work at the lab in 1978. Their work, in the form of policies, analysis, and technology—including the basic science behind low-e windows and compact fluorescent bulbs—was making its way into the economy. Still, Reagan threatened the lab’s funding, and it responded by changing its name to Applied Science.

The collaboration with China, by contrast, offered a government that openly wanted the skills and science LBNL could provide. A steady stream of young Chinese engineers and policymakers started coming to soak up LBNL’s knowledge and culture.

The lab did not make recommendations, but provided data, analysis, and technical assistance to their Chinese counterparts. Policies and standards for energy efficient refrigerators, appliances, motors, and buildings grew out of work done by people trained at the lab. “Part of the joy of working with them is that they know how to be very effective,” said Levine.

Along the way, Levine worked to form institutions to ease and formalize the relationship between the Chinese leadership and what is, after all, a U.S. government lab. For Levine, the experience has been a lesson in making change happen. “Working in China has convinced me that if a government wants to do it, it can do a lot. I think it would be fun to work in California too.”

As the barbecue continued, Art Rosenfeld, who now serves as a state energy commissioner, himself showed up. With him was California Public Utilities Commissioner Dian Grueneich, who is implementing programs to meet state greenhouse gas reduction goals. The two probably came expecting to be asked to help China, but upon hearing that the Top-1000 program’s goal is to cut 242 million tons of CO2 by 2010, Rosenfeld calculated that this could eliminate the need to build 38 coal-fired power plants. Then he offered his highest praise: a hoarsely whispered, “That’s not bad.”

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