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Globalizing the Energy Revolution

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by Denis Du Bois last modified Dec 30, 2010

December 24, 2010 -- The U.S. government must do more to promote cross-border innovation and protect intellectual property rights, say the authors of an essay in Foreign Policy Magazine. Are they dreaming? -- Energy Priorities



December 24, 2010 -- --

The U.S. government must do more to promote cross-border innovation and protect intellectual property rights, say the authors of an essay in Foreign Policy Magazine. Are they dreaming?

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This time of year, my inbox fills with press announcements of forthcoming "Top Ten" lists, including rankings of states in the battle for cleantech leadership. Nations, states, and cities want to become the hub of the clean energy economy -- if they haven't already claimed that status.

Foreign Affairs cover photo on

"Globalizing the Energy Revolution" points the way to open trade and innovation on clean energy.

But four Fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations write that an agenda of "green protectionism" built on fears of losing the clean-energy race could result in barriers that stifle innovation.

The advice of "Globalizing the Energy Revolution," an essay in Foreign Affairs Magazine (November 1, 2010), is to lower those barriers and become proactive about spreading clean technologies around the world. (Link -- FA subscription required)

"Technology advances most rapidly when researchers, firms, and governments build on one another's successes," they write, but nations nonetheless pursue policies that deter essential cooperation among them. "This slows down the very innovation that they are trying to promote at home and simultaneously stifles innovation abroad."

The essay presents a detailed explanation of the extraordinarily high cost and embarrassingly low U.S. investments for clean solutions to supply growing energy demand.

China, meanwhile, is investing heavily in renewable energy like wind and solar, electric vehicles, clean coal and carbon sequestration. Brazil and India are not sitting on their hands, either.

No single country, much less one state, can create even a majority of the clean energy innovation needed. On the contrary, each region has its strengths -- as Brazil is developing with biofuels adoption, and California with energy efficiency standards.

Innovation needs to be globalized, so that U.S. EV makers can benefit from battery technology from China, India's solar power developers can leverage U.S. photovoltaic developments, and so on.

That will require changes in intellectual property rights and trade protections. Three major markets -- China, India and Brazil -- are perceived as weak when it comes to protecting the IP of U.S. companies doing business there. The authors propose intellectual property insurance, especially for small to medium-sized cleantech enterprises.

Both the U.S. and China are guilty of large-scale preference for domestic products and contractors, locking out other countries in the name of garnering political support for projects and policies. Instead, the authors suggest that the Department of Commerce could do more to forge cross-border relationships among industry players.

Even with open policies for trade and innovation, advanced energy solutions spread slowly to the countries that need them the most. The essay's authors make a case for accelerating that spread by promoting cross-border cooperation on research and development, like the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center launched last year. Permanent clean-energy exchanges in developing countries, international demonstration projects, and an expanded mandate for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, would also help.

Good ideas, in my view, but difficult to implement here when it requires political support from voters feeling the pressure of high unemployment and an extended recession. As long as the Mayor of Philadelphia or the Governor of Washington must claim to run the hub of the clean energy economy and green job creation to get reelected, international cooperation is a distant dream.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is spending far too little on developing expensive clean-energy technology. As we fall farther behind other countries in innovation, our role in the global solution gradually becomes trivial.


By Denis Du Bois at Energy Priorities




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