U.S. & China Team Up on Cleantech Research: Bane or Boon for IP?

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has inspired hand-wringing among some companies and trade groups in recent months with calls for the international community to take a “very collaborative” approach to improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This morning, the Department of Energy offered a first glimpse of how Chu’s vision of collaborative cleantech innovation will really unfold, announcing plans to develop a new U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, starting with a total of $15 million in funding (split equally) from the two governments. The figure seems low in the context of a $787 billion stimulus package, but the DOE says it’s just an initial investment to get the project up and running.

Focusing primarily on “building energy efficiency, clean coal (including carbon capture and storage) and clean vehicles,” the center is slated to begin operations this year with a mission to “facilitate joint research and development on clean energy by teams of scientists and engineers from the U.S. and China,” and create “a clearinghouse to help researchers in each country,” according to a release from the DOE. At the Edison Electric Institute conference last month, Chu explained the reasoning for urgent work on carbon capture and cleaner coal technologies, even though they’re experimental at this point and mean continued reliance on fossil fuels: “If the United States turns its back on coal,” he said, “China will not.”

As the Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog explains this morning, “The Chinese have been clamoring for rich countries to both underwrite their clean-energy advances and to provide them with the technology. Many Western companies are leery they’ll end up taking one for the team, in the form of clean-tech transfers to China which could threaten their fast-growing businesses.” Then again, as Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times column earlier this month, China could prove to be a threat for these businesses — not by co-opting their IP, but by being more competitive on cleantech innovation:

China is increasingly finding that it has to go green out of necessity…And that is what China is doing, innovating more and more energy efficiency and clean power systems. And when China starts to do that in a big way — when it starts to develop solar, wind, batteries, nuclear and energy efficiency technologies on its low-cost platform — watch out. You won’t just be buying your toys from China. You’ll be buying your energy future from China.

For those concerned that Chu’s push for collaboration will contribute to a weakening of IP protections (an issue Celeste LeCompte explores on GigaOM Pro this week, subscription only) or undermine their ability to compete on the global market, the new research center seems to be far from their worst fears. When we spoke with several entrepreneurs recently about IP protections and climate policy, Scott Faris, CEO of battery startup Planar Energy Devices, emphasized “a direct correlation between IP protection and the flow of capital, particularly for smaller companies.” But he also suggested there’s room for the kind of collaboration laid out in today’s announcement. National labs and other government R&D organizations, he noted, “have a broader goal in life.” There’s potential for them to heighten competition for companies if they’re working on the same tools (for example, Chu has said he wants the DOE to provide advanced green building design tools through an open platform), but they don’t exactly yank IP from private companies’ hands.