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Energy Foundation CEO Eric Heitz: Building a 'Beautiful China'

Updated: Oct 10, 2014 Print

For Eric Heitz, CEO and co-founder of the Energy Foundation, a partnership of philanthropic investors promoting cutting-edge clean energy, China's future in energy efficiency is pure gold.

"The past 15 years that the foundation has been helping China meet its energy challenges and preserve the country's environment have witnessed an absolute transformation in China's work on clean energy," said Heitz.

Heitz received the National Friendship Award of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept 29, the highest honor the Chinese government bestows on foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to China's economic and social progress. Some 50 foreign experts receive the National Friendship Award each year.

"China has gone from not being a leader in many of these areas (energy efficiency and new energy) to being a top leader in almost all of the areas of clean energy now."

And, he added, the future is bright.

The Energy Foundation China, the Chinese office of the 23-year-old foundation that uses targeted grants to support clean-energy technologies and policies, was launched in 1999 in an attempt to help China preserve its environment by promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The largest overseas foundation dedicated to energy and environment has so far helped raise more than $200 million in contributions supporting clean energy programs in China over the past 15 years.

The organization has supported more than 1,560 clean energy programs in eight energy-consuming sectors, including transportation, buildings, industry, electric utilities and renewable energy, in cooperation with more than 440 organizations, including policy research institutes, academies, think tanks, standardization bodies and NGOs.

According to Heitz, the progress China has made in energy use and efficiency in the past 15 years has been huge, and it is the country's ambitious policy, good leadership and worldwide expertise that help create the market.

Taking the China National Institute of Standardization as an example, he said when they first began they had all that international experts coming over so that China could learn from them; but now all those international experts are coming to visit CNIS because China knows how to do it better than any of them, Heitz said.

It's the same in the case of windmill and solar manufacturing. Before 2006 China had no industry in the areas, but in less than 10 years China has become the largest wind and solar manufacturer in the world.

"These are the areas where ambitious policy and good leadership help create the market," he said.

Cleaner energy and energy efficiency also brings more benefits for the Chinese, including cheaper energy, the economic benefits of reduced energy use and less pollution, he said.

There are tremendous economic development opportunities in meeting the air quality, urbanization and energy challenges in China, said Heitz.

"China is so big and growing so fast," he said. "If we can come up with a solution for clean energy and energy efficiency in China, we can do it anywhere else."

The Chinese are good at adapting world-class expertise to China, he said.

Heitz said the foundation has sister organizations in India and Latin America, as well as some European countries. However, its major focus on China is due to the much stronger leadership and a very strong economy to back things up and get them done.

"In the long term, China will provide solutions, as well as many of the technologies that places like India and other developing places will copy and introduce," he said.

According to Heitz, the first impediment and the biggest obstacle so far in bringing the international experts and advanced expertise to China is to understand how the complex Chinese policy machine works.

"Many foreign institutions don't understand how Chinese policy works and how important it is to work within Chinese policy to get the job done," he said.

Regarding some policies that involve two or three ministries, each with its own players, to "understand the environment" is a necessity for a foreign institution in China.

"To provide the best international expertise means you have to understand all of them and to understand where you could have value with very little money," he said.

"Once you understand the environment you can learn how to support the leadership and add value."

With a dedication to advance clean air and clean energy use in China, the foundation, under Heitz's leadership, is becoming more familiar than ever with how to hold discussions with Chinese decision makers and share global best practices to influence the advancement of energy and environment related policy.

However, it was not easy to win the trust of the Chinese government and experts, and it took the partnership of philanthropic investors a long time to build its credibility and trust in the country.

When he first came to China 15 years ago, Heitz was often asked: If you are not here for a profit, what are you here for?

"We overcame that very slowly by building trust, with the Chinese experts and the government," he said.

"We brought the best technical work that we could find globally to address the energy issues and we didn't pretend that we had a strategy — we just introduced the best minds from Chinese and global think tanks.

"To build our credibility, we had to find Chinese experts and build a relationship with them in a humble way."

The biggest challenge for the Energy Foundation China in the next 15 years, according to Heitz, is to get Chinese leadership and think tanks to recognize that a low carbon future is also a sound economic future.

Studies show that if you increase energy efficiency you will not only provide job opportunities but also reduce the fossil fuel use that causes pollution, he said.

He said the country's high level has send out promising messages regarding ways to cap carbon, introducing prices on carbon and other ambitious sector policies, all positive developments in the effort to achieve a low carbon future, he said.

"Just think how exciting it is to have an electric car that can plug into your house, which has a solar panel on it. The whole country does not need to import oil from foreign countries and there is no pollution at all," said Heitz.

"Electric cars, solar panels and various other clean-energy technologies — these should be the future of China."

Having been working for 15 years in the country, the foundation hopes to continue support for the cleanest energy by giving grants to Chinese institutions and experts for another 15 years.

Heitz said he was confident that China, with advanced experience and expertise, could move faster towards achieving an energy efficient future.

It has been demonstrated that China can do things faster than other countries as long as it is determined to act, including establishing air emissions rules.


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