America is losing the green energy race

December 7, 2011

Sunil Sharan is the founder of Sierra Consulting, a renewable-energy consulting firm. He was formerly with General Electric, where he served as the director of GE’s Smart Grid Initiative from 2008 to 2009. He has worked in the clean-energy industry for more than 11 years and can be reached at sunil_sharan@yahoo.com.

The race to renewable energy is on, and despite heavy marketing campaigns on the part of the federal government and corporations, the United States continues to fall behind.

China has rapidly increased its investment in solar and wind power, becoming a leading player in the green energy space. China accounted for at least half of the world’s solar cell production in 2010. In wind power, China squeezed past America in November 2011 to become the top wind-power producer, with an installed capacity of 45 gigawatts, compared with the United States’ 44 gigawatts. Meanwhile, most American companies prefer going overseas when it comes to manufacturing renewable energy technologies, exporting desperately-needed jobs and intellectual property. The United States cannot reap the full benefits from its own innovation unless companies are incentivized to manufacture this technology locally.

But smart meters, which communicate energy data over long distances, represent a rare exception where American companies lead the world in green technology. The communication technology underpinning these meters has been mastered by fewer than a dozen firms worldwide, with American ones predominating. Since 2009, more than 10 million smart electricity meters have been installed in the United States, funded mostly through funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Even as the United States is winning the smart meter race in terms of technological advancement internationally, it may be losing the public relations battle at home. American consumers are skeptical. Who or what will stop energy companies from spying on individuals’ personal habits, hackers from taking down the energy grid, or utilities from selling consumers’ personal information? Some have dismissed these concerns. But they are not entirely unfounded, as leading smart meter vendors acknowledge security flaws.

These failures, combined with America’s fierce support of individual freedoms, mean that it is anyone’s guess as to how many smart meters will be installed and how quickly.

The smart meter news only gets worse, since an increasing number of smart meters are being manufactured overseas. Embattled Energy Secretary Steven Chu lamented during a Washington Post Live event on Nov. 3 that Americans invented technologies such as solar cells, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries, only to see them adopted overseas faster than at home. Smart meters may be the next casualty.

The production of renewable energy and smart grid technology is not the only way in which the United States is falling behind. Government gridlock at the federal and state level is slowing the nation’s progress. Despite a stalemate in federal policy, 24 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have passed a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) — a binding target for renewable energy production. Others wait to gauge which way the national wind blows, while the rest will not act unless forced to. In sharp contrast to our inertia, the European Union, with a population of about 500 million, and a standard of living equivalent to ours, has forged ahead. In 2007, the EU leaders agreed to mandate that a 20 percent share of energy consumption must come from renewable sources by 2020. And the region is reportedly on track to meet that goal.

Congress refuses to budge even as America continues to lose ground, and its intransigence could continue for years, compounding on the nation’s competitiveness problem. A way out is for President Obama to pass an executive order mandating a nationwide RPS, moderate enough to make the climate amenable for renewable energy but not so aggressive that it will be hard to meet or needlessly inflame partisan passions. Such an order would immediately empower the nation to compete for the world’s emerald laurel.

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