By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009
President Obama has often described his push to fund "clean" energy technology as key to America's drive for international competitiveness as well as a way to combat climate change.
"There's no longer a question about whether the jobs and the industries of the 21st century will be centered around clean, renewable energy," he said on June 25. "The only question is: Which country will create these jobs and these industries? And I want that answer to be the United States of America."
But the leaders of India, South Korea, China and Japan may have different answers. Those Asian nations are pouring money into renewable energy industries, funding research and development and setting ambitious targets for renewable energy use. These plans could outpace the programs in Obama's economic stimulus package or in the House climate bill sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).
"If the Waxman-Markey climate bill is the United States' entry into the clean energy race, we'll be left in the dust by Asia's clean-tech tigers," said Jesse Jenkins, director of energy and climate policy at the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based think tank that favors massive government spending to address global warming.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke are visiting China this week to discuss cooperation on energy efficiency, renewable energy and climate change. But even though developing nations refused to agree to an international ceiling for greenhouse gases last week, China and other Asian nations are already devoting more attention to cutting their use of traditional fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal.
South Korea recently said it plans to invest about 2 percent of its GDP annually in environment-related and renewable energy industries over the next five years, for a total of $84.5 billion. The government said it would try to boost South Korea's international market share of "green technology" products to 8 percent by expanding research and development spending and strengthening industries such as those that produce light-emitting diodes, solar batteries and hybrid cars.
China and India are kick-starting their solar industries. India aims to install 20 gigawatts of solar power by 2020, more than three times as much as the photovoltaic solar power installed by the entire world last year, the industry's best year ever. And China's new stimulus plan raises the nation's 2020 target for solar power from 1.8 gigawatts to 20 gigawatts. (A gigawatt is about what a new nuclear power plant might generate.)
"China is trying to catch up in a global race to find alternatives to fossil fuels," the official China Daily said in an article last week.
"A lot of people underestimate how focused China is on becoming a global leader in clean technology," said Brian Fan, senior director of research at the Cleantech Group, a market research firm. China now provides a $3-a-watt subsidy upfront for solar projects, he said, enough to cover about half the capital cost. Fan said it is "the most generous subsidy in the world" for solar power.
China is also expected to boost its long-term wind requirement to 150 gigawatts, up from the current 100 gigawatt target, by 2020, industry sources said. Jenkins said China could provide $44 billion to $66 billion for wind, solar, plug-in hybrid vehicles and other projects. Fan said China also plans to make sure that many of the orders go to its own firms, Gold Wind and Sinovel.
The big Asian research and investment initiatives come as U.S. policy makers boast about their own plans, giving ammunition to those who say this country needs to do more.
"That R&D represents America's chance to become the world's leader in the most important emerging economic sector: energy technology," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) in a May 13 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "In the years to come, I hope that America will be selling clean technology to China and India and not the other way around."
Confident that the United States will develop top-notch technology, the House voted overwhelmingly on June 10 to oppose any global climate change treaty that weakens the intellectual property rights of American green technology.
"We can cede the race for the 21st century, or we can embrace the reality that our competitors already have: The nation that leads the world in creating a new clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the 21st century global economy," Obama said on June 29.
But countries in Asia are not standing still waiting for U.S. advances.
That both excites and worries U.S. manufacturers torn between opportunity and fear of a boost for Asian competitors at a time when the world's biggest market, the United States, has slowed down sharply. "This is heavy manufacturing business. The U.S. has had a great position over the last several years," said Vic Abate, vice president of renewables at General Electric, the world's number two wind turbine company. "If it slows down and if investment doubles down in China, it will be a lot harder to catch up."
"We have already been left behind in some areas," said Mark Levine, director of the environmental energy technologies division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "But . . . there remain many opportunities," he said, adding that "the U.S. can carve out key areas in clean energy technology."
Although GE is the only U.S. company among the world's top 10 wind turbine makers (China has two, Germany has three), Levine said "there are areas in wind energy where we are likely to develop crucial technologies that we will both exploit and likely license to others." He cited advanced materials that would permit stronger rotors and techniques for taking advantage of higher wind speeds at greater heights.
Levine said the United States is unlikely to "become the or even a leading photovoltaic manufacturer. But our scientific talent . . . has a good chance of developing the next-generation PV systems which we could either manufacture in China or another country . . . or license to foreign companies. . . . Even if the manufacturing is done abroad, this will lead to very real and large benefits to the U.S. from licensing fees, not to say sales in the U.S. and elsewhere."