Aside from an endless supply of cheap labor, China has a near total domination of rare mineral production like neodymium (used to make permanent magnets for wind turbines) and indium (required for next-generation solar). The country also benefits from a government that adds incentives to renewable energy production, unlike the U.S. government, which has promoted relatively meager financial incentives and is still beset with regulatory roadblocks at the state and federal level.
But there is a bright side to the Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy report. The U.S. has one thing that no other country has, and it has it in vast, untapped quantities — energy waste.
Yes, the U.S. is the most wasteful country on Earth when it comes to energy consumption, and lest you think I'm berating this wonderful nation (I'm not), let me clarify that this "untapped waste" is the quickest, cleanest, safest and most economy-bolstering source of energy we have here in the U.S.
China doesn't have energy waste in nearly the same abundance we do. That is why they had to corner the markets in rare earths (see the chart below) and vigorously stimulate renewable energy production to keep up with their growing demand.
With two major strategies — energy efficiency and energy conservation — the U.S. could come out ahead in the energy race with China. The key, according to PCI fellow David Fridley, is to abandon the "pipe dream" of energy independence purely from mythical "clean" energy sources (like "clean coal," "clean nuclear" and "clean gas") OR new renewables like solar and wind: "Energy resilience is not a technology issue. It is a cultural, social, and behavior issue."
By stimulating a WWII mobilization to protect our resources, promoting and rewarding lifestyle changes like biking, using efficient light bulbs and appliances, eating less, and insulating our homes and offices — we could come out ahead sooner than we think. This cultural shift may be a huge challenge, perhaps rivaling the creation of a nation-wide smart electricity grid. But it holds the greatest promise.
Should we abandon alternative energy? No one is suggesting that at all. The U.S. has made major breakthroughs in several energy sectors that no other country has — like solar PV and solar thermal. And with our vast wind and solar resources, we should be investing in a mix of renewable energy sources. But if we want to get ahead fast, we would be wise to prioritize the challenging but essential shift towards energy efficiency and conservation.
Check out the Pyramid of Conservation recently dug up by Treehugger which shows the spectrum of efficiency options available and their relative costs.
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