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Obama says U.S. must win clean-energy race

Speaking at MIT, the president says the nation that leads in the alternative-energy field will also lead the world. Later today, Obama will focus on a different kind of power at two fundraisers.

October 24, 2009|Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — Over the next three years, Americans will be required to replace nearly all their traditional light bulbs with cooler, more energy-efficient bulbs under a 2007 bill signed by President Bush.

But almost all of the 100 production lines needed to churn out new bulbs are expected to be built overseas. Similar scenarios are likely to play out for wind turbines, solar cells and other parts of the emerging global market for clean energy.

That's the gloomy prospect faced by federal officials and business leaders alike as they confront the twin challenges of combating climate change and trying to keep the U.S. competitive in the multitrillion-dollar race to develop and sell new energy systems.

President Obama emphasized the opportunities -- and acknowledged the challenges -- in a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston on Friday.

"From China to India, from Japan to Germany, nations everywhere are racing to develop new ways to produce and use energy," he said. "The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation."

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has warned that China is spending almost three times as much as the United States on low-pollution energy.

Though most U.S. business leaders acknowledge a problem, they disagree sharply over how to encourage renewable-energy investment without imposing higher costs on consumers or businesses that depend on fossil fuels. "This is probably one of the more difficult subjects we've ever had to deal with" as a business community, said Chad Holliday, who heads the board of directors for DuPont and leads the CEO-heavy Council on Competitiveness, a group pushing the government to overhaul energy policy.

"Every country out there wants these so-called green jobs," Holliday said in an interview. "If we move fast, we can get at least our share. But there's a downside. If we sit back and allow other countries to build that infrastructure . . . we're going to lose."

A study by analysts at Deloitte illustrates several areas where the United States is struggling, including light bulbs, solar photovoltaics, advanced vehicle batteries and geothermal turbines.

One example: The nation isn't close to producing enough undersea cables to link power customers with the rows of offshore wind farms that the Obama administration hopes to string along the Atlantic Coast.

Many companies, seeing profit potential in renewable energy, say the federal government must spur investment by encouraging a sustained demand for low-emissions power, which currently costs more in most cases than fossil fuels. The companies want the government to restrict greenhouse gas emissions -- raising the costs of the fossil fuels that emit them -- and to set national standards for renewable-electricity use. Those measures are centerpieces of the House energy and climate bill that Obama touted on Friday.

"Absent a clear national commitment to renewable [energy] and to greenhouse gas limits, we will continue to see the supply chain shift overseas, and the promise of the green economy could slip away," said Ralph Izzo, president and chief executive of Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., a New Jersey utility that has invested aggressively in solar power.

Other companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the Obama-backed climate bill that the House passed, say emissions limits aren't necessarily required to boost competitiveness. The Chamber advocates tax credits, a "clean-energy bank" to spur investment, and nuclear power, said Karen Harbert, president and chief executive of the Chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy.

"Don't just say, 'How do we get carbon out of the air?' " said James Owens, chairman and chief executive of construction equipment giant Caterpillar.

"That could get the wrong answer."

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jtankersley@latimes.com

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