May 18, 2013
The New Sputnik
Posted on May 10, 2011
By Juan Cole
In 1957, a United States shocked by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite bounced into action to compete on the world stage. More than 50 years later, in May of 2011, the U.S. is facing a new challenge. The Chinese Communist Party has decided to launch a crash program to produce green energy, a field where it already has a commanding lead over the U.S. The difference between 1957 and 2011 is that American politics in the meantime have been captured by parasitic or corrupt industries such as high finance and big oil and gas. The Green Gap produced by China’s increasing lead in the technologies of the future is not even headlined in America’s corporate mass media, much less galvanizing a nation of gas guzzlers and coal junkies.
The disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has caused the Chinese Communist Party to reconsider its plans to vastly expand its own nuclear power industry. The government of President Hu Jintao is thinking instead of vastly expanding the green energy sector, aiming to produce 50 gigawatts from solar energy by 2020, up from a previous goal of 20 gigawatts. If the new goal can be met, it will be an impressive accomplishment in its own right. The six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, among the largest such plants in the world, produced 4.7 gigawatts, so the Chinese solar plants would be the solar equivalent of more than four such complexes.
The real promise, however, is that if the Chinese government really does throw a trillion and a half dollars at solar and other renewables over the next decade and a half, the cost of producing energy in that way is likely to plummet. The Middle Kingdom already produces half of the world’s solar panels. The bad news for the United States is that China could dominate the rapidly growing and crucial world market for green technology in coming decades, leaving literally in the dust a Rust Belt America wedded to dirty coal, oil and water-slurping shale extraction.
China’s production of green technology has been growing 77 percent a year, and solar panels, wind turbines and other green manufactures account for 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product. Only tiny Denmark outdoes China on this score, deriving 3.1 percent of its GDP from renewable energy technology. But of course in absolute terms China’s production in this sector, at $64 billion annually, leads the world. The U.S. derives only 0.3 percent of its GDP from green tech and substantially trails China in absolute terms. Last year Beijing installed three times as much new wind turbine capacity as the United States. It added 18.9 gigawatts of new wind power-generating capacity in 2010, or about half of all the new wind installations in the world.
Chinese officials, unlike many representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, have no doubt that spewing carbon into the atmosphere is causing climate change of a sort that threatens the world’s and their own country’s future prosperity. China’s dirty coal-burning plants are a major source of this pollution, and it is they that the clean energy installations will replace.
The Eisenhower administration responded vigorously to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik program. Americans were shocked to discover that they were No. 2 in so important a scientific and technological field. In the 1950s, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans were still paying their taxes, and so the government had the wherewithal to found the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and to bump up research and development in a number of other agencies, as well as promote science education in the K-12 system.
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