US cedes solar race to China

By / 17th January, 2011 / Energy conservation / No Comments

If this were the Olympics, we wouldn’t even take home a bronze.

The long range implications of what’s happened are staggering.  T Boon Pickens has pointed out the most obvious of them: that even as we try to slow the export of US wealth to the Middle East, we’re shifting our energy dollars to China, buying a renewable manufacturing capability from Asia.  We want to go cold turkey on our oil dependency, only to become addicted to Chinese solar panels and wind turbines.

Think this is hyperbole? Consider what just happened to Massachusetts based Evergreen Solar, America’s third largest solar panel producer. Evergreen Solar announced it’s closing its big US factory, a plant built partly with $43 million in taxpayer dollars. Evergreen is laying off 800 workers though the company is not closing. It’s simply moving production to China in a joint venture fueled by high Chinese subsidies. The subsidies probably violate World Trade Organization rules, but the plant will be long gone before the WTO rules on it.

Recently Silicon Valley based Solyndra also announced it is closing one of two US plants for similar reasons. This happened at the same time that China just surpassed the US in wind turban production, sales and installations. Yet American wind turbines last longer and require less maintenance.

America’s loss to China in renewable energy equipment manufacturing adds a new twist to Sir Winston Churchill’s quip that a “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
It’s because China isn’t a democracy that its leaders can implement strategic plans, making decisions without fear of losing election support from disgruntled special interests. Big bucks from lobbyists haven’t sidetracked Chinese decision making. The Shanghai Stock Exchange doesn’t dominate long term corporate planning the way Wall Street pressures American management.  Like it or not China is out maneuvering us in the commercial marketplace chiefly because they are not encumbered by democracy.

Please don’t wave the flag and get patriotic with me. It misses the point. The reality is that our experiment with democracy has come to a time in a globalized marketplace when our inefficiencies are showing. Either long range strategic planning happens unencumbered at the cabinet level and is permitted, even cheered by a polarized Congress, or we fall further behind. It’s that simple just as it is that difficult.

We can tremble at the boogieman of big government involvement; we can remain ideological purists and pay the consequences in the world market. But if we do not figure out to reinvent government, how to insulate green legislation from the forces of bickering, how to allow a federal energy initiative reminiscent of Kennedy and America’s space race, it will cost us dearly. We will remain second tier in the renewable energy marketplace and you’re feeling the consequences of that squarely in your bank account.

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