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November 24, 2009

The Green Gap: American Ingenuity is not an Illusion

By: Julian Carmona, Intern for the Global Warming and Energy Team

American ingenuity is not an illusion. We built four of the seven Industrial Wonders of the World (Hoover Dam, Panama Canal, Transcontinental Railroad and Brooklyn Bridge). All of these great engineering feats were devised, planned, built and financed by American businesses with American minds.    

What does this all have to do with clean energy technology and global warming? Some detractors of a clean energy bill have made the point that the United States is in a zero-sum game with China. Republicans, like Sen. Bennett (R-UT), have complained that there is no use in attempting to cut greenhouse gases if China does not agree to do the same. He perceives their super-accelerated domestic development as a move away from cutting emissions. This, in his mind, will make them more competitive, and make the US less competitive. In other words, we will not succeed in cutting emissions and will be back to “zero.” 

Assumptions about complacency over cutting emissions have been coupled with assertions that China is producing clean energy technology purely for profit. This is based on the fact that some of our wind turbines and solar photo-voltaic cells are being manufactured in China. This means that China will continue to reap the benefits of US debt, while building more coal plants, instead of wind farms and solar panels for domestic use.

Both of these assumptions are completely baseless. While I was attending the Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas in August, I heard from Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who is highly respected in China. He told the audience about his trip to China, and how the government was building up wind farms and solar panels for domestic use. He also told us that they were on track to build a country-wide smart grid by 2020.

The problem of inaction over climate change also has to do with lack of the belief in US ingenuity. There is no lack of brainpower or inventiveness in the US. Most of the clean energy technology that China is producing was invented in the US. If we invented it, then why can’t we manufacture it? At the conference in Vegas, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) told the crowd that the drive to create clean energy technology and mass produce electric or plug-in hybrid cars was available in the US. Secretary Chu has recognized this drive by creating the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to finance 37 breakthrough energy technology projects from academia and private industry (named after the DARPA project, which created the Internet, another American invention).

We sent a man to the moon, took the first flight, built the computer, invented the internet, split the atom and created technology to harness energy from the wind, sun and water.

But, the lack of confidence in US creativity, along with the ignorance about China’s intentions only stifles our ingenuity. Because China is making leaps and bounds forward, they will have a strategic advantage.

That will leave the US to play catch-up. And, that’s just not us.   


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