When it comes to renewable energy innovation and equipment manufacturing, China is challenging the West, and the outcome will decide where millions of jobs go in the future.
As The New York Times reported recently, "China vaulted past competitors in Denmark, Germany, Spain, and the United States last year to become the world's largest maker of wind turbines, and is poised to expand even further this year. China has also leapfrogged the West in the last two years to emerge as the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels. ... These efforts to dominate renewable energy technologies raise the prospect that the West may someday trade its dependence on oil from the Mideast for a reliance on solar panels, wind turbines, and other gear manufactured in China."
The United States' growing dependence on China is one issue of national concern, but another is: Where will the jobs that innovation creates go?
We still have a big advantage -- for now, at least -- in our nation's scientific research facilities, the most advanced in the world. And the $400 million funding of ARPA-E, created in 2007 but dormant until President Obama's stimulus bill was approved, is a positive sign.
ARPA-E's mandate is to tackle the most complicated, high-risk, potentially high-reward problems in energy research that might otherwise go unchallenged because of the high likelihood of failure. All it takes with such gambles, however, is one big win to change the future; and in the process of scientific discovery, even "failed" experiments teach us a great deal about the natural world.
President Obama also made an excellent move in appointing Arun Majumdar as head of ARPA-E. Dr. Majumdar was an administrator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and has a commanding knowledge of energy conversion, transport and storage.
U.S. college and university science programs give us another major advantage, as does freedom of speech - a key ingredient in any academic exploration. But the United States needs to be the source not only of new ideas but of the resulting equipment that gives them practical application.
We've seen manufacturing jobs go overseas in the past, even in energy - oil in particular - but our nation's goal is to reduce our dependence on other nations for energy, not simply to trade one form of dependence for another.
To be sure, we're a long way from being dependent on renewable energy. Roughly 37 percent of U.S. total energy use comes in the form of petroleum, and the United States imports more than half of its oil from foreign nations - including such unstable and potentially troublesome suppliers as Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Venezuela.
Coal, which supplies 23 percent of our energy needs, is projected to increase in use over the next few years - despite its environmental consequences - as the demand for electricity grows and coal-fired generating plants come on line in the face of rising natural gas prices. Natural gas provides roughly 23 percent of our national energy needs; nuclear power produces about 9 percent. That leaves clean energy - solar, geothermal, wind, water and biomass - accounting for only 7 percent.
President Obama understands the challenge. His economic stimulus bill included more than $80 billion in clean energy investments, mostly for infrastructure upgrades and improvements, including $11 billion for a smarter electrical grid system. But unlike China and many advanced European nations, the United States still lacks a large-scale ongoing commitment to wean itself from fossil fuels in favor of clean renewable energy.
Yet, even with a commitment of that scale, there's the question of where the infrastructure will be made. It will clearly be assembled in the United States, which will provide one set of jobs, but where will it be manufactured?
As The New York Times reports from China, "Renewable energy industries here (in China) are adding jobs rapidly, reaching 1.12 million in 2008 and climbing by 100,000 a year, according to the government-backed Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association."
China has cheaper labor costs, a more rapid pace of development, and available capital, but the United States still has the advantage in technological innovation. We need to use that advantage to ensure that it leads to jobs in this country.
Technological innovation is still the key to our economic growth. We need to encourage and sustain it, while using it to our nation's fullest advantage.
James M. Gentile is president & CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation, begun in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.