SEATTLE – Itron supplies technology to manage energy use to thousands of utility companies around the world. In China, where improving energy efficiency over the next decade is critical, it’s just getting started.
Officials from the United States and China hope that marrying such high-tech solutions with pressing energy needs will help the two countries solve environmental problems while benefiting both economies.
China’s energy planners got a firsthand look at the technology recently during a visit to Itron’s headquarters in Liberty Lake. It was part of an effort to showcase the Northwest’s innovations as government officials from both countries met in Washington state to discuss collaboration on energy and the environment.
Together the two countries use half of the world’s energy, consuming a third of its oil and more than half of its coal. China is on track to surpass the United States this year as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and some experts say it already has.
“If half the world can work together and say, let’s both try to clean this thing up, then you create a situation where the rest of the world can say yes,” said Stanley Barer, co-chairman of a private-sector coalition that hosted the visiting Chinese energy officials in Seattle last weekend.
While recent bilateral negotiations have been stuck on thorny issues such as the value of the Chinese currency, this time the two sides found more common ground, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, who participated in the government talks.
“I thought it was a great start,” she said “There was a lot of enthusiasm for the task at hand. This was about getting to the specifics of how our governments might work toward reducing CO2.”
The talks on energy, spun off from the regular meetings on economic issues known as the U.S. China Strategic Economic Dialogue, included officials from the U.S. Treasury, Commerce, Energy and State departments and the Environmental Protection Agency.
They met privately in Gig Harbor, Wash., with Chinese representatives from the National Development and Reform Commission; Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ministry of Science and Technology; State Environment Protection Administration; and the Ministry of Finance.
Separately, the University of Washington and a private business group each signed agreements with China’s Energy Research Institute, a government think tank.
“There was a real meeting of the minds,” said Barer, chairman emeritus of shipping company Saltchuk Resources.
The business group agreed to form the U.S.-China Clean Energy Forum, committing to meetings two or three times per year in Seattle and Beijing for the next several years. American members include former U.S. Trade Representatives Carla Hills and Mickey Kantor.
The group said it will identify and implement projects in clean energy and alternative fuels and recommend solutions to the two governments to address trade, legal and financial barriers.
A key legal question is how to protect the intellectual property of technology companies like Itron.
The company has begun to sell software to utilities in China, and it manufactures natural gas meters at a factory in Chongqing. Its most cutting-edge products are metering systems that take precise measurements of energy use and deliver data back to utilities. Two-way systems can send signals to customers or to smart appliances to cut consumption at times when the energy supply is constrained. In measuring water use, its technology can detect leaks under the street using acoustics.
Itron sees opportunities in China’s plan to boost its energy efficiency, said marketing director Tim Wolf. But concerns over intellectual-property rights have made Itron cautious about the China market.
“Senator Cantwell and everyone made it clear that IP rights are an important concern as we go forward,” Wolf said. “Working directly with a government-sanctioned group in China mitigates those concerns to some extent.”