Comment: Time to learn new lessons

It has been said that geopolitics never progress far beyond the sandbox: boys will be boys and girls will be girls - though they may be lawmakers and ministers of state.

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Recent behaviour on either side of the Pacific Ocean bears this out.

China in October angered trading partners after officials said that exports of rare-earth metals used in wind turbines might be cut next year on "sustainability" grounds. Many in the US took this as a thinly disguised effort to corner the market in the metals - critical to a number of high-tech devices - and just the latest act of economic aggression from China. The Asian giant already stood accused by a powerful US trade union and lawmakers of providing unfair subsidies to its wind and other renewable energy industries.

Amid the hubbub, China has demonstrated greater command of strategy than the US - at least when it comes to wind. To be sure, China is not beyond scrutiny. For example, it remains to be seen whether foreign turbine manufacturers in China can benefit from the repeal late last year of a requirement that 70% of all wind plant components be made domestically.

But, overall, government policy has undeniably spawned the makings of a world-class wind industry. From its support for Mongolia's wind farms in the 1980s to strong backing for scientific research in the late 1990s and a drumroll of new policy over the past decade, China has bolstered wind.

In the US, government support for wind is far patchier. Prospects today are dim for the passage of a national renewable electricity standard (RES) before a new Congress takes over next year. The renewables industry says a federal RES, placing an obligation on power utilities to procure a set proportion of their electricity from green energy sources, is crucial. There are also fears that a spendthrift new Congress will be unwilling to pass a two-year extension of cash grants to renewable energy projects.

The race is on

In February 2009, US president Barack Obama said: "We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient." The evidence backs him up.

Last year, China overtook the US and other G-20 members in clean energy investments: it spent $34.6 billion in the green energy economy, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts - almost twice the $18.6 billion spent by the US.

In September, the US was second to China in the rankings of the most attractive markets for renewables development in a quarterly review of renewable energy policy by Ernst & Young. The same month, consultancy Make slashed its six-year forecast for US wind installations, in part due to unfavourable energy policy.

Wind will face harder times in the US. Climate-change sceptics are reportedly set to wield greater power in the US House of Representatives in what is surely an ill omen for renewables.

Historians have often noted that nations risk decline if they do not adapt to change. For the US, it is now time to accept that there are different ways of organising industry and making policy decisions. As Obama hints, if the US wants to lead in the 21st century, it might have to learn from its Asian rival.

Eric Prideaux is deputy editor of Windpower Monthly

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