Dispatch from Copenhagen: Secretary Locke Worries That U.S. Companies Could Fall Behind

If the climate talks now going on in Copenhagen lead to binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions, the resulting transformation to a greener energy system will be good for business, argues Gary Locke, Secretary of the U.S. Commerce Department. “If we take serious action, we will be laying the foundation for future prosperity,” he says. “It could spur one of the greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century.” GE, for instance, is looking to sell everything from wind turbines and energy efficient locomotives to technology for making the electricity grid smarter and more efficient.

Locke is leading a delegation of U.S. companies, including GE, in Copenhagen, hoping to ensure that American business snares a big share of those opportunities. But he worries that the U.S. in danger of falling behind. American researchers invented solar panels, but now the leading manufacturer of solar panels is China. “Three years from now, we will wake up and ask how Brazil or Singapore, or others became the Silicon Valley of green energy,” Locke frets.

The problem? U.S. companies are hampered by the lack of a clear energy and climate policy at home, Locke says. Countries like Germany and Spain have nurtured strong home-grown renewable industries through such policies as feed-in tariffs, in which utilities must pay a premium for electricity from renewable sources. Meanwhile, China has invested heavily in technologies like solar and wind. In the U.S., companies are still waiting for similar incentives, such as a national policy requiring a certain percentage of renewable power, or limits on carbon that raise the price of using fossil fuels and make renewables and energy efficiency steps more cost competitive. “I’ve heard from so many companies and investors that they are sitting on the sidelines until the rules are clear,” says Locke. “The longer we wait the further other countries will move ahead. That’s why it’s so important for Congress to pass energy legislation as quickly as possible.”

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