Yup, we have hesitated (stalled, really, thanks to a certain Texan and his petrocronies) and the opportunity to take the renewable-energy lead is fast slipping away.
According to a story in the NYT, Power-hungry India and China have proven fertile markets for wind energy, and not thanks to fat subsidies, as any skeptic might expect (India has been applauding every type of energy production, because it is so desperate for more power). An Indian company, Suzlon Energy Ltd., has developed proprietary designs for turbine parts, which are selling in the U.S. through a subsidiary.
According the the Times, it turns out that rising natural-resource prices, combined with inflated rates and unreliable services, have inspired larger companies to contract directly with wind farms for their own energy. Windpower, as a consequence, is growing fast. The prediction is that as long as coal/oil/natural-gas prices stay where they’ve been lately, wind will remain competitive.
Now, there are American concerns working on windpower; see AWEA for industry-group info. But we are not amused that newsworthy innovation is being done elsewhere and sold here. We don’t begrudge any country their clean energy efforts; on the contrary, the specter of India and China spending the 21st century growing huge on the backs of two-stroke engines and coal plants, driving climate change ever faster, frightens us more even than domestic environmental foot-dragging does. We’re instead bothered by what looks like a re-telling of the auto-industry story: just as Japanese automakers carved out their share with better products and prices while the complacent Big Three placed faith in their own unsinkability, foreign ingenuity may again beat us to the punch, while our automakers and power companies cling resolutely to business-as-usual mindsets and a long-honed knee-jerk resistance to outside influence.
We have (or had?) an opportunity to take the lead in developing a wide variety of clean-energy technologies, but our country’s industrial pillars are not doing so and our political leaders are not spurring them. Automakers are dragged, uncooperative, out of the past, and utilities reject wind and solar technology until they are promised subsidies or immediate returns. These attitudes are short-sighted, stubborn, and ignorant of the eventual importance of these technologies.
As India and China are doing now, the rest of the world will look to solar and wind technologies as a buffer against the price volatility, supply insecurities, and environmental costs of fossil-fuel use. (The same NYT story reports that China has already set a goal that it will produce 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.) The U.S. risks not being the country for green-technology development. Instead, we risk being forced to pay retail for the productivity, brainpower, and skilled labor of others.
It is in our national interest to be the sellers, not the buyers, of innovative technologies, and energy is one of the few sectors guaranteed to be both huge and growing for decades to come. It will be our to our great regret if we do not act now to cement our role as a home to progress in energy technology.