Will America Lose the Clean Energy Race?

The U.S. is not only investing far less in our clean energy industries than Asian nations, but also falling behind in energy science and technology education.
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This is an expanded version of an op-ed originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 27, 2009, by Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins .

Forty years ago last week, the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the surface of the moon, and the U.S. won the space race. As we celebrate this historic moment, we are reminded that today America faces a new global competition that will have far greater implications for the future of our nation and the world: the clean energy race.

While Congress debates climate and energy legislation, Asian challengers are moving rapidly to win the clean energy race. China alone is reportedly investing $440-660 billion in its clean energy industries over 10 years. South Korea is investing a full two percent of its GDP in a "Green New Deal" to expand their share in cleantech markets. And Japan is redoubling direct incentives for solar power, 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. This funding level is so low that a group of 34 Nobel Laureates recently submitted a letter to President Obama decrying the lack of investment and calling on the president to uphold his promise to invest $15 billion annually in clean energy R&D -- fifteen times the current level in Waxman-Markey.

The U.S. is not only investing far less in our clean energy industries than Asian nations, but also falling behind in energy science and technology education. Only 15 percent of undergraduate degrees earned in the U.S. each year are in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) areas compared to 50 percent in China, according to the National Science Foundation -- all at a time when nearly half of our current energy workforce is expected to retire over the next decade.

This spring, the Obama administration proposed an initiative designed to bridge this dangerous energy education gap by inspiring and educating thousands of 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 train up to 8,500 highly educated young scientists and engineers in the clean energy field by 2015 alone. Technical training and K-12 funding would support hundreds of programs nationwide to train thousands more technically skilled clean energy workers.

As President Obama announced in April, "The nation that leads the world in 21st century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st century global economy... [RE-ENERGYSE] will prepare a generation of Americans to meet this generational challenge."

Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate and House recently rejected the Obama administration's energy education proposal, with the Senate cutting the program from $115 million to $0 and the House appropriating only $7 million.

If the U.S. had responded to the Soviet launch of Sputnik the way today's Congress is responding to the Asian energy challenge, America would not only have lost the space race, we would have been left behind in the technologies and industries that fueled a half-century of economic progress.

Indeed, the U.S. simply could not have won the space race without major federal investments in targeted education programs. Spurred on by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, committing billions of dollars to equip a generation to confront the Soviet challenge. These investments developed the human capital necessary to put a man on the moon and invent the technologies that catapulted our world into the Information Age, from microchips and telecommunications to personal computing and the Internet.

Last week, a group of over 100 universities, student groups, and professional associations submitted a letter to each member of the Senate urging full support of RE-ENERGYSE. "America is in danger of losing its global competitiveness and the clean energy race without substantial new investments in science, technology, math, and engineering education," they wrote. "RE-ENERGYSE... 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, including the $15 billion in energy R&D called for by our nation's top scientists.

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. Forty years from today, we may still find the burgeoning clean energy economy promised by President Obama and Democratic leaders. It will simply be headquartered in China.

Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins are Project Director and Director of Energy & Climate Policy at the Breakthrough Institute. They are co-authors of the National Energy Education Act proposal.

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