When Clint Wilder and I wrote our first book, The Clean Tech Revolution, we knew we needed to travel to China if we wanted to understand the future of clean tech. Mind you, our trip took place more than five years ago, well before most people uttered the words "China" and "clean tech" in the same breath. But it was becoming increasingly clear, even then, why China was going to be such a force to reckon with. Today, most businesspeople, investors, politicians, entrepreneurs, and students understand the Chinese clean-tech juggernaut, what it might mean to the U.S., and why we need to prepare.
So why is China really scaring me right now? Earlier this year I wrote in a column on why I think America can compete with China in the clean-tech race. And I still stand by those points. But a number of recent developments are making China’s aggressive push, and America’s relative clean-tech ambivalence, of increasing concern:
China’s clean-tech push, of course, will be riddled with future obstacles, potholes, and challenges. For example, approximately a third of China’s wind power had not been connected to the grid by the end of 2010, highlighting issues with grid connectivity keeping up with new capacity additions. There have also been complaints of everything from exploding wind turbines to pollution concerns at solar PV manufacturing plants, demonstrating serious environmental and quality control issues that could cause significant roadblocks in the nation’s push for clean-tech dominance. And, ongoing issues surrounding weak intellectual property protections in China continue to threaten foreign investment and participation within the country.
But do you think these business and infrastructure issues will unravel China’s commitment to its clean-tech build out? I don’t think so. Instead, China is redoubling its efforts in order to own as much of the clean-tech sector as it possibly can.
The U.S., on the other hand, has some political leaders that are ready to call it quits. The U.S. “can't compete with China to make solar panels and wind turbines,” U.S. Representative Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) recently told National Public Radio. Imagine if our earlier tech revolutionaries in aerospace, computing, and the Internet had policymakers with such weakened spines -- we’d be a mere shadow of our current selves.
No doubt America faces its own unique challenges, but it’s not time to give up. Instead, let’s tap our entrepreneurial spirit, regain our clean-tech policy backbone, and get back in the business of 21st century innovation and leadership. The Chinese, I’m certain, will be doing nothing less.
Ron Pernick is cofounder and managing director of clean-tech research and advisory firm Clean Edge, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and is currently working on his second book with Clint Wilder, Clean Tech Nation.