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Don’t Let China Win the Green Race

December 9, 2019
Ro's Op-Eds
John Kerry and Ro Khanna

The New York Times

Washington is consumed with discussion about the consequences of a rising China, from trade disputes, to their authoritarian surveillance and oppression of Uighurs, to their aggression in the South China Sea. There’s comparably little debate about how the United States can shape the environment into which China is rising, let alone the actions we can take at home to ensure our values prevail. We see more focus on tariffs than building wind turbines and solar farms. We should not be spectators in shaping our own future, or the world’s. We should pledge that by the end of the next decade, America will surpass China and win the clean energy race.

We aren’t winning the clean energy race today. In many ways, we aren’t even trying. China is becoming an energy superpower. Earlier this year, the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation reported that China became the world’s largest producer, exporter, and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles, followed by Japan and Germany. The United States ranks fourth.

China surpassed us for the lead in renewable energy technology, too, with 150,000 patents — making up 30 percent of the world’s total. We are second with just over 100,000 patents, while Japan and the European Union follow with about 75,000 each.

In 2015, China surpassed us to become the largest electric vehicle market and is on pace to dominate production for the next 20 years. Chinese electric vehicles account for 60 percent of global sales: 876,000 vehicles were produced last year compared with 361,000 in America.

China is doing things we are afraid to do. They offer citizens large subsidies for purchasing electric vehicles from state-owned companies. Municipalities waive fees for electric vehicle owners. The city of Shenzhen, which has a population of 12.5 million people, runs a 100 percent electric vehicle bus fleet and is, by fiat, converting 22,000 taxis to electric vehicles.

High-speed rail also is integral to China’s strategy. It has the largest high-speed railway in the world, with 19,000 miles of track and most major cities connected by the network. The United States has less than 500 miles. Our fastest train takes 19 to 22 hours from New York to Chicago, whereas the same distance in China takes four-and-a-half hours.

Unless we have a strategic plan, China may become the OPEC of the 21st-century energy industry. It’s folly to replace a world order too dependent on Middle East oil with one that’s too dependent on Chinese technology.

America can mobilize around a national strategy to lead the world in clean technology that will attract bipartisan support from both coasts and the heartland.

How? Just think about the options we could explore. We could expand the electric vehicle tax credit, making it fully refundable at the time of purchase. That means a person wouldn’t have to wait a year for their tax refund but would receive money back immediately when buying an electric vehicle. If these credits are tied to domestic manufacturing, private sector jobs will return to auto industry towns.

We could add two zeros to the end of the budget for ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, taking it from a few hundred million to tens of billions of dollars. We could double the budgets for the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Office of Science. The aggregate current level for these two would increase to around $18 billion from about $9 billion. Each support renewable energy research and are critical for the type of disruptive innovation necessary to meet the scale and urgency of the climate challenge.

We could use an infrastructure bank to finance a high-speed rail system to relieve congestion, reduce pollution, increase energy efficiency, and provide alternatives to regional air travel. Although the California experience shows how local zoning concerns and cost overruns present challenges, the lessons learned show that we need a clear road map before implementation, rather than an ad hoc approach.

We could match China’s annual investment in public-private partnerships. Whereas China spent $126 billion on renewable energy investments in 2016, we spent just over $40 billion. We need more examples like the Department of Energy working with theBreakthrough Energy Coalition, a group launched by Richard Branson and 20 other leaders committed to making renewable energy technologies less expensive and more commercially viable. Last month, a Bill Gates-backed start-up achieved a breakthroughusing artificial intelligence and mirrors. This new technology harnesses the sun’s energy to create heat hot enough for carbon-free industrial processes, like making concrete. Another place for investment is in electric car batteries, which need a range of closer to a thousand miles than a few hundred. Home energy storage systems and solar cells must also become smaller and more convenient.

Energy is the largest market the world has ever seen. Four to five billion people consume energy today. That figure will increase to nine billion in 30 years. Today we have 2.3 million clean energy jobs. A national strategy focused on winning the clean energy race can create millions of new jobs, considering solar panel installer and wind turbine technician jobs are already expected to grow at around 60 percent over the next decade.

America can claim credit for many of the last century’s greatest contributions to humanity. We did not lead simply by opposing great powers, but by setting the standard for scientific and technological advances. Our China strategy should be premised on becoming the undisputed global leader in the new energy market, and the nation all others seek to emulate in tackling the climate change crisis.