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A Critical Moment for Energy Leadership

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One of the most powerful moments during last week's State of the Union came when President Obama warned that while Washington stalls, other nations are moving quickly to dominate the global clean-energy industry.

"China is not waiting to revamp its economy," Obama declared.

"These nations aren't playing for second place... They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America... The nation that leads the clean-energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation."

Obama is right, and as always, his words were eloquent. Now his administration must get to work and advance a real strategy for global energy leadership.

The current proposals under consideration in Congress are far too weak. China, Japan and South Korea are launching massive, comprehensive clean-energy projects, investing a combined total of around $500 billion over the next five years. In contrast, the House-passed American Clean Energy & Security Act (ACESA), combined with the 2009 economic recovery package, poises the U.S. government to invest only $172 billion in this industry over the next five years, according to a recent report I co-authored with the Breakthrough Institute and Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.

That is hardly an effective strategy for energy leadership, and advocates should be careful about labeling the House and Senate climate bills as comprehensive solutions for U.S. clean-tech competitiveness.

In July 2009, a group of 34 Nobel Laureates wrote a letter to President Obama decrying this lack of investment and urging his support for $15 billion per year in clean energy R&D. "We are concerned that [ACESA] provides less than one fifteenth of the amount you proposed for federal energy research, development, and demonstration programs," they wrote. "This stable R&D spending is not a luxury. It is in fact necessary because rapid scientific and technical progress is crucial to achieving these goals, and to making the cost affordable."

A large and growing body of technology experts agree. In recent congressional testimony, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu stated, "I am concerned that we have not adequately focused on the importance of research and development of new energy technologies."

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Chairman of the Senate Energy & Commerce Committee, recently said, "It is troubling that current legislative proposals before Congress to address climate change give relatively low emphasis to providing funding for the needed science and technology."

And in a recent public broadcast on energy and climate policy, Bill Gates wrote, "I looked at Waxman Markey [cap and trade climate legislation] and the research thing was miniscule."

Indeed, these proposals contain dangerously low levels of support for technology development. ACESA would only invest $1 to $1.5 billion per year in clean energy R&D, on top of the current federal energy R&D budget of around $4 billion per year (only a portion is for renewable energy). Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health receives $30 billion in federal R&D, while the Department of Defense receives a whopping $85 billion.

Now is a critical moment. Copenhagen came and went with few results. The national climate agenda is on the verge of collapse. The tide is rapidly rising against greater federal investment. And Asia is moving at break-neck speeds to dominate this industry and seize the mantle of global economic leadership.

Fifty years ago, in the wake of the launch of Sputnik, the United States rose to the moment and launched a massive national effort to lead the space race and win the Cold War. Today, the clean energy race represents one of the greatest opportunities and challenges for American leadership in a generation, and it demands a similar national mobilization.

If the administration and Congress do not take swift action to invest $15 to 30 billion annually in federal clean energy R&D -- along with a broader set of investments in clean energy deployment, infrastructure and education -- the United States will miss a historic opportunity to strengthen our economy, create new jobs, improve our energy security and lead the world in confronting climate change. A decade from now, we may still find the prosperous clean-energy economy promised by our national leadership. It will simply be headquartered in China.

Originally published by The Stanford Daily

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