Joining The Australian National University in March 2020, Dr Jorrit Gosens is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy. He is an expert on energy transition with a focus on key elements that build strong renewable energy industries. Jorrit spoke to us about the unique factors that made China a leader in renewable energy sector, the inspiration and success of the China Energy Portal he founded, and his new research on the development of hydrogen industry in Australia.
1) Tell us a little bit about your background.
I did my MSc programme in environmental policy in Wageningen, a town of 35,000 people in the Netherlands, and moved to Beijing for a PhD after that. Apart from the difference in surroundings, I was fascinated by the pace of development and China’s attempts to develop renewable energy. I first visited China for study in 2005 and then started my PhD in 2009. There was almost nothing to even analyse back then, whereas today China is now the largest market and manufacturer for wind and photovoltaics (PV). I’m glad to have seen this massive development.
2) What do you miss about Netherlands?
The sunny weather, delicious food, and the warm people. No. Wait. It would be my family and friends before that, of course. It’s quite a change seeing them only twice a year or so. After that, I miss the football matches, such as the Dutch league, Champions league and Euro Cup, which are all broadcast in the middle of the night. And Holland isn’t all that bad of a place to live, really. You get used to the weather, and the food, and the people.
3) You spent some time living in China and doing a PhD. How has learning Mandarin helped you in your study and career?
Learning Chinese was an absolute necessity. At first it was just about managing everyday life in Beijing, ordering food, or giving directions to a taxi driver. After my reading skills improved, I could read Chinese statistics and policies. Being able to access primary sources rather than having to depend on English translations made a big difference because it would often be a delay of years before any such translation would be available.
4) What's the inspiration behind the China Energy Portal you created and what impact have you seen?
It’s related to the above, really. When I was still in China, and later during my post-doc in Sweden, I received regular questions asking for the latest updates on energy use statistics or policies in China. I was happy to supply them, but I also suspected there would be a wider audience for these figures, so I started to think about a sensible way to put these online.
In 2017, when I found a piece of software that allowed website visitors to help with translations, which can be as short as a few lines, I figured I had a useful concept and created China Energy Portal. The purpose of the Portal is to track China’s transition to sustainable energy by offering free and timely English translations of Chinese energy policy, news, and statistics.
The China Energy Portal has certainly filled an important information gap. I’ve seen many references to the Portal in major news items and reports produced by REN21, Agora Energie Wende, Carbon Brief, Greenpeace. The Portal also receives 10 to 25 thousand site visits per month.
As for me, the Portal helps me keep up with my Chinese reading skills.
5) What do you see as key challenges for China as it becomes a major player in global energy transition? Are there success factors unique to China?
My PhD Thesis was on China’s capabilities for innovation in renewable energy sectors, and it had a subtitle of ‘the transition from lagging to leading’.
I think that’s still a key element today: how can China shift from mass-manufacturing technologies designed abroad, to taking the lead in innovation. This has a lot to do with technological capabilities and skilled personnel, but policy and market design are crucial too.
China has done very well, for example, with setting very stable and long-term price support policies (feed-in tariffs) for renewables. The government is also seen as a reliable partner who would help out should problems arise in these new growth sectors.
In contrast to other emerging economies, China has a wide range of very capable supply chains that are skilled enough to manufacture all sorts of components. This makes China a good location to start production of equipment for new technologies.
There is still a lot of debate about whether China’s more command-style economy or a free market economy would be best for encouraging innovation. This issue is also discussed in my 2013 paper on China’s development from lagging to leading in wind turbine manufacturing, and a 2020 paper on China’s role in the next phase of the global energy transition.
6) Tell us about your new role in the Energy Transition Hub programme. What do you look forward to?
One of my key tasks is to analyse the development of the hydrogen economy in Australia. We will be looking at the elements — knowledge, skills, finance, infrastructure, organizations, etc. — required to develop hydrogen industry clusters, and assess whether these elements are available in regions where traditional industries, such as coal-mining, are in decline.
This is exciting because, other than electricity generation, hydrogen can decarbonize energy-intensive industrial processes. For example, hydrogen can replace coal in steelmaking. It can also be used to produce ammonia, which can be used as a fuel or as a feedstock in making fertilizer. These are just a few of the most commonly discussed examples of how hydrogen is used. Many more industrial processes could switch to hydrogen once production processes are scaled up and prices come down, or when carbon emissions from fossil fuel use are properly priced.
The development of an Australian hydrogen industry can further provide new opportunities for investment, job creation, and Australian exports, mitigating some of the potential negative side effects of the energy transition for fossil fuel industries. Australia seemingly has a good position to develop a strong lead in the global hydrogen market: it has an abundance of solar energy that can be used to power the production of hydrogen, and a lot of potential demand throughout Asia, as was the case with the Australian LNG industry.
To learn more about Jorrit Gosens’ research and publications, please visit the ANU Researchers’ page.