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April 21, 2010

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SF, Shanghai sisters in green tech

AS the only American city to receive official participant status at the World Expo 2010 Shanghai, San Francisco is taking the theme "Better City, Better Life" seriously.

San Francisco Week at the Expo takes place from June 17-25, and Shanghai's sister city will be highlighting the Bay Area's green technology industries.

"The US and China will be two of the main players in the fight against global warming," says James Fang, chairman of the San Francisco-Shanghai Sister City Committee.

"Both countries are talking about sustainable energy because it so roundly affects everyone. The sister city relationship can offer an example of how the Chinese and Americans can work together.

"We want to emphasize the innovation that the Bay Area is famous for. We may be ahead of China in research and development, but they may be ahead of us in manufacturing. So it could work out well for everyone."

Just as the Bay Area was the cradle for Apple, Yahoo! and Microsoft - high-tech companies that changed the way we live - so the area is poised to become a hub of the next green renaissance.

It's not a matter of if the green tech transformation will occur, but when, says Egon Terplan, regional planning director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

"Just as computers have permeated every industry, so will sustainability," he says.

Green screens

"Soon every computer screen will use less energy; the competitiveness of a firm will be defined by its environmental impact; and what we now call 'green building' will someday simply be called 'architecture'."

The writing is on the wall. Starting next year, any building construction in California must use materials with low chemical emissions. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has mandated that all state buildings must be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified.

And San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who joins US Senator Dianne Feinstein as mission leader for San Francisco Week this June, is offering homeowners tax incentives to make their houses more energy-efficient.

"San Francisco has a history of environmental consciousness," explains Terplan. "California is the only place nationally in the last 30 years where power consumption has gone down. The government has a strong environmental policy, and because of its entrepreneurial environment, there are a lot of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley trying to invest in the next wave of innovation."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific Rim, China has also begun to embrace the green tech revolution. Its current five-year plan aims to reduce energy intensity by 20 percent and cut pollution by 10 percent. The nation is also seeing more of its buildings pursue LEED ratings.

"Companies that are able to reduce their environmental impact will be more competitive globally," says Anthony Bernheim, sustainability principal of AECOM Design and a board member of the US Green Building Council.

"If China wants to market its materials internationally, it's going to have to comply with new standards. And manufacturers are going to have to figure out more efficient, less polluting, more recyclable methods."

China solar

As part of that international movement, China is evolving into one of the world's biggest solar manufacturers. In fact, it is home to the largest photovoltaic panel maker in the world, Suntech Power. Suntech itself became a symbol of ties between China and the Bay Area, when in October 2007, it opened its US headquarters in San Francisco.

"Forty to 50 percent of all solar sales in the US are in California, so it made sense for us to establish an office in a green-friendly environment," says Wei-Tai Kwok, vice president of global marketing.

"San Francisco also has a commitment to helping Chinese businesses come here. Former Mayor Dianne Feinstein turned China into a friend and trading partner (when she established the sister city relationship 30 years ago). China sees San Francisco as a place with natural assets - it's close geographically, and there's a large Chinese American work force that speaks Chinese and can help in intercultural dialogue."

Suntech's San Francisco office is merely its first step into the US market. The Wuxi-based (Jiangsu Province) company is now setting up a manufacturing base near Phoenix, Arizona. "Just as unknown Japanese companies like Sony came into play in the 1960s and South Korean companies in the 1980s, Chinese companies are going to become world players on the global market," predicts Kwok.

That type of cooperation is what the city of San Francisco is promoting through ChinaSF, its economic development initiativelinking China and BayArea businesses.

"When Chinese green tech companies come here, we connect them with banks, governmental leaders and energy providers like PG&E," says Director Ginny Fang. "When San Francisco businesses want to go to China, we do something similar."


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