Center for American Progress

Regaining Our Clean Energy Leadership and Ending Our Dependence on Foreign Oil

Regaining Our Clean Energy Leadership and Ending Our Dependence on Foreign Oil

America has fallen behind in the race to develop clean energy technologies while China and Europe speed ahead. Learn how we can get America back at the head of the pack and restore our proud tradition of innovation.

Workers paint wind turbine blades at a factory in Baoding, China. (AP/Alexander F. Yuan)
Workers paint wind turbine blades at a factory in Baoding, China. (AP/Alexander F. Yuan)

The United States has lost its edge in the global clean-energy market. We were the first to invent the basic technologies for solar, wind, and other clean energies, but we have since allowed the rest of the world to pull ahead. Ambitious, innovative policies abroad are driving this shift. European and Asian countries have put a price on carbon, created demand for new technologies through strong renewable energy standards and feed-in tariff policies, and invested in their manufacturing sectors and workforce training centers in order to meet rising demand.

The United States has begun to prioritize clean-energy investments through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and emerging climate legislation, but in general lags far behind. We import 70 percent of all our clean-energy components from other countries and remain reliant on imported and dirty fossil fuels to power our economy. Our lack of comprehensive clean-energy policies places us at an economic and competitive disadvantage in the global market; perhaps more important, it makes us dependent on other countries to supply our basic energy needs.

President Barack Obama put it clearly when he said, “We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for lasting prosperity.” As it stands now, our inability to break away from dirty energy regimes is allowing those jobs to pass by the United States and move abroad.

Competitors dominate green industries while America is left behind

Our clean-energy investments are insufficient to maintain any level of competitiveness in the international economy. As venture capitalist John Doerr recently pointed out in his testimony before the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, “If you list today’s top 30 companies in solar, wind and advanced batteries, American companies hold only six spots. That fact should worry us all.”

  • China is a leading manufacturer of photovoltaic cells, second only to Japan, and it is set to be the world’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines by the end of 2009.
  • The United States had less absolute renewable power capacity than either China or the 25 member nations of the European Union as of 2006.
  • The United States was investing far less in renewable energy annually in 2007 than Germany, which has only one-third the population of the United States and an economy that is less than one-fourth our size.
  • The European Union committed to having 20 percent of its final energy coming from renewable sources by 2020 and China is working to have 16 percent of its primary energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Sixty-six other countries worldwide have indeed committed to nationwide standards, but our federal government has yet to set any.
  • Cars in China that get about 36 miles per gallon will be required to get 42.2 miles a gallon in 2015—an 18 percent increase over the next six years. European emissions agreements pushed mileage in Europe to about 40 mpg by 2006 and are on track to meet their target of 47 mpg by 2012. America, meanwhile, is aiming for only 35.5 mpg by 2016.

Fossil fuel dependence threatens our economic security

  • The volatility of the oil market during the last 30 years has cost the U.S. economy approximately $8 trillion.
  • The United States currently imports approximately 70 percent of its oil. In doing so, we export tremendous domestic wealth—the United States spent $475 billion on foreign oil in 2008 alone.
  • The U.S. trade deficit widened for a second straight month in April 2009 to $29 billion from $27.6 billion in March 2009. This increase was primarily driven by rising energy costs and a rebound in the value of petroleum.

Fossil fuel dependence also threatens our national security

  • Because nearly 40 percent of our oil imports come from potentially hostile or unstable regimes, and 92 percent of conventional oil reserves are in these nations, U.S. dependence on oil weakens our international leverage and undermines our foreign policy objectives.
  • Inefficient use and overreliance on oil burdens the military, undermines combat effectiveness, and exacts a huge price tag—in dollars and lives.
  • Our energy grid’s inefficiencies and inadequacies pose a threat to our domestic military installations and their critical infrastructure, which are unnecessarily vulnerable to deliberate or accidental incident.

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