America is losing the clean energy arms race

By: Thomas Hochman

Renewable energy is having a moment.

Over the past two decades, the wind and solar power industries have grown dramatically; investment has skyrocketed, prices have dropped considerably, and renewables have nearly doubled their share of the American grid. Innovations in battery technology, as well, seem poised to accelerate the global energy shift.

While fossil fuels are still the dominant energy source, the coal industry is floundering, and American oil production is expected to plateau within the decade.

Meanwhile, renewables are now often the cheapest form of energy, too, and with international pressure building to reduce carbon emissions, the writing, it seems, is on the wall. Fossil fuels’ long-term advantage is expiring. Renewable resources, as a result, will soon become an invaluable commodity, and it’s imperative that the U.S. gets out ahead of this transition.

In the past, America has been hawkish on energy security. Once quick to pursue energy dominance, the U.S. controlled oil production throughout the first half of the 20th century, and when the industry hub moved abroad, it swiftly consolidated the position of major U.S. oil companies overseas. Meanwhile, America continued to innovate at home and by 2018, had leveraged newfound fracking technology to regain oil independence.

But America’s strategy with renewables has been decidedly different.

Invariably on the front line of research and development, America was first to deploy solar technology. From its invention in the 1950s until the early 1980s, the U.S. dominated the global solar industry, leading innovation and controlling more than 90% of the market. The future, it seemed, was bright.

But the Carter and Reagan administrations didn’t prioritize solar and kneecapped the industry with record-high interest rates, environmental deregulations, and the dismantling of the Department of Energy. America’s share of the global solar market plunged, and by the mid- 2000s, American companies were producing a mere 9% of solar panels worldwide.

Today, China dominates solar manufacturing, building three-quarters of the world’s photovoltaics. A whopping 80% of solar panels installed in the United States are from Chinese companies.

And America’s concessions to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are not limited to solar power. The U.S. has surrendered market share across the clean energy industry, oftentimes at a staggering pace. A little over a decade ago, the U.S. had twice as much wind capacity as China – that number is now flipped. In 2013, the U.S. had five times as many electric vehicles as China – China now has double the American supply.

Particularly when it comes to energy, economic competition does not exist within a vacuum, and countries often leverage their natural resources as a foreign policy tool. In 1973, OPEC placed an oil embargo on the United States in retaliation for their support of the Israeli military. More recently, Russia punished neighboring countries with fuel price hikes when they defied the wishes of the Kremlin.

Now, with its failure to compete in the clean energy arms race, America has exposed itself to an energy security risk reminiscent of that of the 1970s. Already, China has limited American access to rare earth minerals, often critical components of clean energy hardware, in response to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and continues to explore the ways in which it can impede American defense contractors by limiting mineral supplies.

This is a major problem given China’s near-monopoly on critical minerals. China’s production of lithium –the element of choice for electricity storage – is ten times that of America’s and its reserves outpace the U.S.’s by a factor of thirty. Some estimates place the American lithium supply chain at already 20 to 30 years behind China’s. The story with other minerals is not all that different.

This isn’t because China has more naturally occurring mineral reserves, per se. Instead, the CCP is willing to go abroad for its resources –and it’s willing to mine, with a portfolio that now includes lithium in Chile, cesium in Canada, and cobalt in the Congo.

To compete, America will have to respond with its own mining operations. After years of mainstream anti-mining rhetoric, this will surely be difficult for many to accept. It’s not all bad –in the first quarter of 2021, American lithium miners raised over three billion dollars from Wall Street to support cleaner extraction alternatives. Some of the resulting initiatives, like California’s plan to extract lithium from the brine of the Salton Sea, are particularly promising. Still, these solutions are far from perfect.

But the reality is that the United States, despite its vast resources, is currently incapable of going net-zero on emissions. To get there, it will need to pursue an all-encompassing approach – one that involves sustainable mining, to be sure, as well as nuclear power, wind and solar, and next-generation technology.

Otherwise America will fall yet further behind in a race that it cannot afford to lose.

Thomas Hochman (@thomashochman) is a policy researcher at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC) and sophomore at the University of Vermont.

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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