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The Tortoise & the Hare: China Races Ahead in Green Energy While the USA Naps

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

In 2017, the White House released its National Security Strategy (NSS), a 68-page document that explains the national security challenges that America faces and how the White House plans to address them. While past National Security Strategy documents focused on the threat of terrorism, the 2017 NSS warned of the return of “great power competition.” In the eyes of America’s national security strategists, America and China are competing across the globe for influence and power. Nowhere is this more evident than China’s dominance in the field of renewable energy. In the past few years, China made itself into a green energy superpower while America sat on the sidelines. America’s leaders know that China is a powerful rival, but they aren’t making (or can’t agree to make) the necessary investments to make America’s green industries competitive.

China Shines in Solar

China’s dominance of the green energy market is the strongest in the solar sector. More than 60 percent of the world’s solar panels are made in China and China has the solar energy production capacity of 130 gigawatts, enough to power the entire United Kingdom several times over. China’s dominance in the solar sector isn’t an accident, but the result of deliberate planning. China’s “five year plans” have routinely included the production of solar panels and China has used tax credits to incentivize private companies to produce solar panels. China has also used “feed-in tariffs” (a government-fixed utility rate for customers who use solar energy) to build up demand for solar energy inside China’s borders.

China Blows Past America in the Wind Race—But There’s a Catch

When it comes to wind power, China’s dominance is just as strong. China is the world’s largest producer of wind turbines, and it has more wind energy capacity than any other country in the world with producing 187 gigawatts, more than twice that of the United States, which comes in second with 89 gigawatts. China’s total potential wind capacity is estimated at 2,380 gigawatts. Just as in solar, China’s dominance in wind energy comes from government investment in state-owned companies and subsidies for wind farms.

China’s wind industry is not without its problems. China’s transmission system is poorly developed, which means that China’s turbines are producing less electricity than they theoretically could. China has located many of its wind farms in wind-rich but remote areas of the country where it is difficult to bring that energy to the rest of the country.

The wind turbines of the United States are able to produce more energy per unit of installed wind capacity than China’s turbines can, and America’s wind farms can generate nearly 60% of their technological potential while China’s can only generate 40%. What’s more, America’s wind industry enjoys a key advantage that the solar industry does not: it is very difficult to transport wind turbines, which means that they need to be manufactured very close to where they will be set up. While China can simply flood American markets with Chinese-made solar panels, they can’t do the same with wind turbines. The Department of Energy has estimated that the wind industry could be supporting 600,000 American jobs by 2050, and those jobs will be safer from foreign competition than jobs in the solar industry. The evidence is clear: if China improves the efficiency of their wind farms, they will win the green energy race. If America invests in its already-more-efficient wind farms, then we’ll win.

Problem of US Dependence on China

In the past few years, Americans have learned of the downside to our economic dependence on China. When the general manager of an NBA team tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong, he was forced to retract his statements to mollify the NBA’s largest international market. The NBA has little to do with renewable energy, but incidents like this highlight China’s extraordinary economic power. And despite the fact that American policymakers are well aware of the risks of our dependence on China, they have no plans to make America a renewable energy superpower. There is no one reason that America has fallen behind, but those looking for a culprit can point to the pernicious influence of the coal lobby, a federal government that is out of touch with the environmental priorities of its states, and years of prioritizing less important objectives like space travel over renewable energy.

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