8 Questions for John Romankiewicz, Eco Rapper

John Romankiewicz is passionate about clean energy and has spent most of his career working on bilateral solutions to promote clean energy in China and America. He’s even been known to rap in Mandarin about clean energy from time to time…

When and why did you first come to China?

I first went to China in June 2006 for three reasons. First, my friend Matt had just gotten back from spending a year there and I was taken with the stories and pictures that he shared. Second, I was already interested in clean energy and had been reading a lot about China’s growing investments in this area. Finally, I really wanted to learn a foreign language. I arrived in Beijing, three days after graduating college, without knowing a word of Mandarin.

What projects have you worked on in China?

I earned a Fulbright scholarship to study clean energy policy in China. During my studies there, I cataloged everything I was learning with the help of my green brother Shane Zhao, by creating a bilingual video podcastwhich we put on YouTube and Youku. Thousands of Americans tuned in and learned about clean energy in China from the narrations, interviews, and Mandarin “eco-rap” interludes that comprised the Green Beat podcasts.

While in China, I also helped start the Beijing research office for New Energy Finance, a clean energy research company which later became part of Bloomberg L.P.

What projects are you working on now?

Now back in the U.S., I work on U.S.-China cooperation in the areas of energy efficiency and clean energy. While at the State Department, I helped grow the EcoPartnerships program which creates U.S.-China partnerships below the federal level between cities, states, universities, and businesses to work on solving environmental and energy problems.

I’m currently working on projects at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with various Chinese organizations. I’m working on an energy efficiency standards project with the China National Institute of Standardization and a policy analysis project on microgrids (yeah, distributed energy generation!) with theChinese Academy of Sciences.

You are obviously passionate about clean energy. How did you first become interested in it?

Part of my interest in clean energy has to do with the influence of my older brothers—at the time, one was working in fish and wildlife management and the other as a carpenter on off-the-grid houses. The other piece of the puzzle was that I was studying materials science, and clean energy was becoming a hot application for new discoveries in the field.

I found it really exciting that the technical boundaries of what could be possible in the realm of energy were being pushed by materials science. Later, though, I got more interested in the policy and economics of energy investment, as the serious barriers to a clean energy transition lie in these areas.

What’s the best way to promote cooperation between China and America?

I think the best way to promote communication and cooperation between the U.S. and China is to encourage and fund it all levels. At the highest levels, U.S. and Chinese officials can work on important frameworks like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the World Trade Organization. At the lowest levels, individuals can exchange experiences and grow relationships. Somewhere in the middle, NGOs, businesses, and government organizations can work with each other on joint projects and initiatives.

Each of these levels serves a distinct purpose. High-level diplomacy can help ensure workable and fair global frameworks for clean energy and climate change. Mid-level cooperation can foster important policy conversations and technical research. Individual cooperation engenders a web of valuable, net-positive relationships.

Based on your own experiences, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about China?

A lot of people believe that a rising China is bad for the United States. Secretary Clinton and President Obama have both emphasized that a prosperous China is good for the U.S. and the rest of the world. I meet a lot of people who are very skeptical of the work I do, cooperation with China on clean energy and energy efficiency. They think that it will create no value for the U.S. but the fact is that every day, billions of dollars of goods are floating back and forth between the U.S. and China, and new relationships are being forged every day between individuals and organizations, creating a strong foundation for positive growth in both countries.

What is one of your favorite or most memorable China experiences?

I was smushed between Matt and a wall made of yak dung, sleeping in a tent made of yak hair with Tibetan nomads in Yushu, Qinghai in March 2007. Well, I wasn’t sleeping—I was freezing! But I could see the stars through a hole in the top of tent where the chimney from the small stove poked through.

That night when I couldn’t sleep, I reflected on everything I had seen that day, how the nomads lead a simple life, centered around herding yaks. The clothes they wear are made from yak fur. The fuel for their stove and building materials for small walls to protect against the wind in their tent is yak dung. They eat the yak’s meat and drink its milk. When the nomad was herding the yaks together, he flung a piece of yak dung using a slingshot made of yak hair and hit a yak 100 meters away square in the rear end! Wow, that brings everything full circle.

Their entire livelihood revolves around this animal and the health of the ecosystem where they live. I wrote a song about this later with the band I was playing with in Beijing and we performed it at D-22.

What did you like to do for fun in China?

Jamming or hanging with pengyous at Jianghu Bar in Nanluoguxiang, or kicking the shuttlecock (毽子!) around in Jingshan Park before watching the sunset from the top of the hill. Now, when I’m kicking it in Berkeley, dreaming of my Beijing days, I get my pengyous together for pijius and they all ask me to make one of my killerjianbings for them.

Photos courtesy of Mary Dennis and Simo Bian.