Will America Lose the Clean-Energy Race?
As Congress debates climate and energy legislation, Asian challengers are moving rapidly to win the clean-energy race. China alone is reportedly investing $440 billion to $660 billion in its clean-energy industries over 10 years. South Korea is investing a full 2 percent of its gross domestic product in a Green New Deal. And Japan is redoubling incentives for solar, aiming for a 20-fold expansion in installed solar energy by 2020.
In contrast, the United States would invest only about $1.2 billion annually in energy research and development and roughly $10 billion in the clean energy sector as a whole under the Waxman-Markey bill - less than 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP. A group of 34 Nobel laureates recently wrote a letter to President Obama decrying the lack of investment and calling on him to uphold his promise to invest $15 billion annually in clean-energy R&D.
The United States is also falling behind in energy science and technology education. Only 15 percent of undergraduate degrees earned in the United States are in science and engineering, compared with 50 percent in China, according to the National Academies.
In spring, Obama proposed a program designed to inspire young Americans to pursue careers in clean energy. The program, called RE-ENERGYSE (Regaining our Energy Science and Engineering Edge), would fund new undergraduate and graduate energy curriculum and research opportunities to prepare up to 8,500 highly educated young scientists and engineers to enter clean-energy fields by 2015 alone. Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate and House recently rejected the proposal, with the Senate cutting the program from $115 million to zero and the House appropriating only $7 million.
If the United States had responded to the Soviet launch of Sputnik the way today's Congress is responding to the Asian energy challenge, America would have lost the space race and been left behind in the industries that fueled a half century of economic progress. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 was critical to developing the skills necessary to put a man on the moon and invent the technologies that catapulted our world into the Information Age. Last week, a group of more than 100 universities, student groups and professional associations submitted a letter to each member of the Senate urging full support of RE-ENERGYSE, which they said "will train America's future energy workforce, accelerate our transition to a prosperous clean-energy economy, and ensure that we lead the world's burgeoning clean technology industries."
To win today's clean-energy race, the United States must respond with the same vigorous commitment to education and innovation that won the space race four decades ago. Congress should begin by strengthening RE-ENERGYSE to the full $115 million requested and pass energy legislation that invests $30 billion to $50 billion annually in low-carbon energy.
If America does not take immediate action to bridge its energy education gap - and if we fail to make substantially larger investments in our own clean-energy economy - we will effectively cede the clean-energy race to Asia. A decade from now, we may still find the burgeoning clean-energy economy promised by Obama and Democratic leaders. It will simply be headquartered in China.
© 2009 The San Francisco Chronicle