Senator Links Manufacturing Revival to Clean Technology

March 10, 2010
Senator Bingaman says government efforts to support solar and other clean technologies have been insufficient and have not focused enough on manufacturing.

The linkage between clean technology and U.S. manufacturing isn't nearly as wide as many think. According to Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, by fostering a strong clean technology sector at home, America can revitalize its manufacturing base. But that won't happen without bold new policies and regulations, which he warns are a long way from passing Congress.

Bingaman's comments were made in a keynote address at the annual MIT Energy Conference in Boston on March 6, where a combination of leaders from government, industry, academic research, international organizations, and the financial sector, met to discuss what has become one of the most critical and volatile global issues today.

According to Bingaman, while Congress and the Obama administration have made significant efforts to support clean energy, "the policies that have been enacted to date are clearly not sufficient to establish the U.S. as the leader in clean technology."

Perhaps more sobering, he said, at the moment, "90% of the production capacity for new clean technology is outside the United States."

China, Bingaman warned, is moving ahead very aggressively, and is threatening the U.S. as a world leader in innovation. As an example, he cited lithium-ion battery technology, which was developed in the U.S. However, he added, only 1% of the manufacturing of these batteries, which have boomed in demand thanks to portable electronics devices, takes place in the U.S. factories assembling new cars.

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Clean technology "offers the opportunity to revitalize our manufacturing sector," said Bingaman. The problem, he said, was policies implemented in the past provided incentives "concentrated downstream" -- away from manufacturing. In the past, he said, the differing levels of support on clean technology have resulted in "government-driven boom-and-bust cycles."

From electric cars, energy storage devices and China's speed to mobilizing for the market, to the newest research in wind, solar, nuclear and biofuels, the conference touched on a multitude of issues. But for all the new technologies displayed -- many of which came from companies spun off of MIT research -- much of the conversation came back to the same familiar points of contention: climate change, how to finance a competitive clean tech industry and what policies governments can enact to foster stable growth.

According to John Rowe, chairman of Exelon, operator of the country's largest fleet of nuclear reactors, America's shift toward cleaner energy -- and its inherent economic opportunities -- has been wildly inefficient.

"We are moving inexorably toward a low-carbon society but in unproductive and uneconomic fits and starts," said Rowe. "Approaches that put a price on carbon emissions, such as cap-and-trade, remain the only solutions to our energy and climate challenges that give us cleaner, more secure energy while minimizing the costs to consumers and putting more people to work."

Though carbon pricing methods such as cap-and-trade have faced stiff resistance politically and in many business circles, Rowe said they offer protections against sharp cost increases to consumers and, most importantly, can create jobs.

"Harnessing the power of markets to find the most efficient solutions is how our economy has created jobs for decades," said Rowe. "And they aren't public works jobs that exist only as long as the subsidies flow. They are lasting jobs that will be here in the long-run."

Clean technology has become one of the most vibrant areas for research at MIT, attracting many of the brightest, most talented students, said university president Susan J. Hockfield in her introductory remarks.

"It's unusual because it wasn't the faculty leading the students toward clean technology, but the students leading the way," she said. "I'm convinced that the next wave of economic growth will rise from the same source as the information and biotechnology revolutions -- from innovation."

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