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A Primer on the U.S. Clean Energy Economy: What It Is, Why It Matters

Attempts to quantify the size, scope and benefits of the fledgling clean economy are in their earliest stages. What do we know so far?

Feb 28, 2012
(Page 4 of 4 )
A youth-led green jobs rally in Washington in Oct. 2009

More than two-thirds of states have renewable or clean portfolio standards and every state but four has at least one clean economy policy, according to a report last month from the National Governors Association. Ten states participate in California's Advanced Clean Car program, which requires them to put thousands of electric cars and other zero-emissions vehicles on their roads. These and other such policies give investors certainty that demand for clean technologies will remain over time, despite the logjam in Washington.

Still, according to the Brookings report, much of state and city clean economy action is in waste management, water treatment and public transit—not clean energy. Roughly 750,000 people, or one-fourth of its jobs count, worked in these sectors in 2010. In the Pew report, some 500,000 jobs, or 65 percent of all positions, were in water conservation, recycling or air-pollution mitigationin 2007.

The clean economy and the 'China card': is there really cause for concern?

Data shows that China is inching ahead of America in a neck-and-neck race to capture the largest single share of the global clean economy.

China accounted forhalf of the world's solar panel production in 2010—the most of any nation, a giant leap from 2008. The U.S. accounts for less than 10 percent of global solar manufacturing. Meanwhile, China became the world's largest maker of wind turbines in 2009, and remains in the top spot.

Beijing has been spending heavily to develop its domestic clean energy market. It spent $33 billion on solar subsidies alone in 2010. By comparison, Obama's 2009 stimulus bill provided more than $50 billion across all renewables sectors to be spent over four years.

On the demand side China is quickly catching up. In 2011, China quadrupled its installed solar capacity from 2010, bringing its total to 2,000 megawatts. The number of U.S. solar installations increased 50 percent in the third quarter of 2011 over last year to 3,100 megawatts, according to the latest industry data.

China installed 44 percent of the world's wind energy installations in 2011, the most of any nation. It's now the world's leading wind producer with nearly 63,000 megawatts. The United States installed about 17 percent of the global share last year, growing its installed wind capacity to almost 47,000 megawatts and putting it in second place globally.

Both countries continue to attract multi-billion dollar investments. The U.S. led the world in renewable energy investments before falling behind China in 2009 and 2010. Last year it reclaimed the top spot by raising nearly $56 billion, a more than 30 percent increase over 2010, which was spurred by a race to use expiring federal subsidies, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China came in second.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the director of the Pew Environment Group's clean energy program. She is Phyllis Cuttino, not Cutino.

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