The Problem with the Polarization of Clean Tech

The Problem with the Polarization of Clean Tech

Clean technologies represent one of the greatest economic opportunities today. And we say this without even taking into consideration the much-maligned environmental advantages of these technologies. The country that can take leadership in clean technology will effectively be in an OPEC-like position of control for our future energy sources and economic power.  Unfortunately, the discussion and eventual embracement of clean technologies has been politicized to the point where any meaningful support of clean technology is dismissed as the handiwork of a political agenda.  There is very little unbiased discussion of the pros and cons of these transformative technologies, and it is harming our opportunity to become a future leader in energy and power.

Despite the domestic development of many of the renewable power and advanced battery technologies over the past several decades, China has far surpassed us in the advancement and manufacturing of these technologies.  And it isn’t even close: Chinese companies control almost all of the world’s manufacturing of solar panels, they produce a huge percentage of the world’s wind turbines, they own nearly all of the advanced battery manufacturing capacity in the world, and they control the processing of nearly all of the minerals that are used in the production of batteries and high-powered magnets for electric motors.  The United States has been focused on short-sighted attention to the near-term growth challenges of these technologies and politically driven agendas.

Imagine where the United States would be if we never decided to build out the modern electrical grid because it was not a perfect technology and needed government support in early years.  Or if we ditched the development of semiconductors and microchips because they were heavily supported by government programs?  Or if we decided to shut down the Global Positioning System since it was run by the Department of Defense? Or if we decided to end the development of the internet due to its limitations when it was largely a construct of the US Department of Defense?  There is a long history of government support and development of technologies that have been critical to the economic success of our country.

The transition to new technologies is not easy given the entrenched infrastructure of some of the existing energy sources like fossil fuels.  Despite this entrenched position, the biggest benefit of transitioning to clean technology is rarely discussed.  The challenge with fossil fuel production is that we have already discovered and exploited our lowest cost barrels of oil.  The benefit of renewable energy sources (and storage of that energy) is that clean technologies are following the traditional technology cost decline curves.  Clean technologies get cheaper and better every year while fossil fuels become more expensive and harder to produce.

Clearly, no technology is perfect; there are short-comings and trade-offs with all new technologies.  The first PC was too expensive for most homes; early iterations of the internet were slow and not very useful, and the current efforts with artificial intelligence efforts are sometimes inaccurate as well as too energy intensive.  Undoubtedly, we can all agree on the longer-term advantages of maintaining leadership in these technologies.  But as Andy Grove, founder of Intel put it, “Only the paranoid survive”, meaning that we need to constantly challenge ourselves to embrace change and shifts in technologies or we will be obsolete and irrelevant.  Every impactful technological gain was produced with some level of government and national commitment, from rail roads to highways and fossil fuel infrastructure. The clean tech landscape needs some level of support, but without honest assessment and debate from all interested parties, we will not develop a cohesive strategy to champion certain technologies to spur future economic growth while also reducing geopolitical risks.



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