This Week in Clean Economy: China Is Leading the Race for Clean Energy Jobs

Report finds that America spends a lot less than China in clean energy sectors that have the most job-creation potential.

Wind farm construction in China
Wind farm construction in China/Credit: Markel Redondo, Greenpeace

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The United States is winning the global clean energy race—at least in terms of luring investment in developing low-carbon technologies. But China appears to have vaulted past competitors to become the leading engine for green manufacturing jobs.

A new report from Pew Charitable Trusts, a Washington policy group, found that the United States took in $48.1 billion in public and private financing in renewable energy technologies last year, up 42 percent from 2010. That catapulted America past all other G-20 nations for the first time since 2009, when Pew began ranking the world’s leading economies on their clean energy investments. In its first report, the United States was second to China. The next year it slipped to third behind China and Germany.

Overall global investment in clean energy reached a record $263 billion in 2011, according to the Thursday study, “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race?” Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a London research firm, compiled and reviewed data for the report. 

The United States attracted 70 percent—or $6 billion—of all venture capital and private equity investments made in solar energy, wind power, electric vehicles and other forms of clean technologies. It also led the world in research and development funding, securing about a third of investments.

Still, Phyllis Cuttino, who directs Pew’s clean energy program, is hesitant to crown America champion of the global clean economy. She said that compared to other countries, America spends more on developing and testing cutting-edge technologies but less in areas that create the most jobs—namely, manufacturing, installing and exporting goods like solar panels, energy-efficient lightbulbs and smart grid technologies.

“We worry that our position in the global economy is one where we create things in the lab [that] are manufactured overseas and shipped back to us,” she told InsideClimate News. “We should really be capitalizing on the other pieces of the clean energy economy.”

The report doesn’t count the number of jobs or companies in each country’s clean energy sector. But Cuttino said it’s safe to assume that China, which placed second in overall investment, is winning the race for clean economy jobs. That’s because China leads the world in “asset financing,” or investments in renewable energy generation projects, which require many boots on the ground to be built, installed, operated and maintained.

Those projects “are where most of the jobs in the clean energy economy are located,” she said. Even though the U.S. received most of the world’s venture capital and R&D money, “we’d rather have the vast majority of asset finance, frankly. And China led that.”

China invested nearly $45.5 billion in clean energy last year. Nearly all of that went toward asset financing. The country’s ambitious renewable energy goals drove much of the spending. China aims to install 150 gigawatts of wind power and 50 gigawatts of solar energy by 2020—enough to power roughly 150 million homes.

Overall, China has installed 133 gigawatts of renewable energy, the most of any country in the world. The United States, by comparison, has 93 gigawatts of clean power.

Cuttino said that national policies like China’s renewables targets are key to drawing investment in advanced manufacturing and other job-creating sectors of the clean economy. “Investors are just looking for assurance, so they are going to the markets where they can be ensured that they’re going to have a return on their investments,” she said.

The United States, which has no national clean energy goals, placed second in asset financing, with $36.5 billion devoted to renewable energy generation projects. Most of that investment, however, was the result of developers scurrying to take advantage of five expired, or expiring, federal tax incentives—meaning that next year the U.S. might find itself with a much lower ranking, the study suggested.

For instance, for three years the Treasury Department’s 1603 program gave cash grants worth up to 30 percent of project costs to solar and wind developers before expiring at the end of last year. A new analysis by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the program created as many as 75,000 temporary construction and installation jobs per year and up to 5,500 permanent jobs.

A 20-year-old production tax credit (PTC) credited with driving massive growth in the wind industry is set to expire at the end of this year. The last time the PTC lapsed at the end of 2003, annual wind installations dropped to 397 megawatts in 2004 from 1,670 megawatts in the previous year, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group.

With efforts to renew the PTC uncertain, no new wind farms have been commissioned for 2014, Cuttino said.

Cuttino noted that the “yo-yoing” in America’s renewable energy incentives makes it tough to attract the asset financing the country needs to develop a robust clean economy. With tax incentives constantly expiring or being renewed, investors “don’t have any long-term assurance, and so they go to other places,” she said.

The concern is that the United States will cede export opportunities to China and Germany. Both are already meeting the demand for solar panels and other renewable energy products in developing countries, where an emerging middle class is increasing the need for both clean and fossil fuel electricity supplies.

Clean energy investments in Indonesia, for instance, grew by more than 500 percent to $1 billion between 2010 and last year, the report said. India increased investments by 54 percent to about $10 billion, driven largely by a national target to install 20 gigawatts of solar power by 2020, up from just 0.4 gigawatts today.

“These emerging markets of the developing world are going to prove to be a place where we see more investment flow in the future,” Cuttino said. “There is no reason why we should be sitting on the sideline.”

Here’s a look at some other findings:

  • Solar energy. Global investment in rooftop solar jumped a staggering 900 percent over the past five years, reaching a record $75.1 billion in 2011, the Pew report said. The United States was the largest recipient of total solar investment, but installed just 1.7 gigawatts. That’s because most of the money went to a few large and expensive solar farms. Overall, the world installed a record 27.9 gigawatts of solar last year.
  • Wind power. Investment in the sector fell by 15 percent to $72 billion last year over 2010, according to Pew. Still, more than 43 gigawatts of wind capacity was installed globally in 2011, up from 40 gigawatts in 2010. Wind power continues to dominate the other clean energy sources, with nearly 240 gigawatts installed worldwide, about 40 percent of the word’s renewable power.
  • A slow start to 2012. In related news, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the research firm that compiled data for Pew, reported Thursday that global spending in renewable energy technologies was $27 billion in the first three months of 2012. That’s down 28 percent from the last three months of 2011, and is a 22 percent drop from the same quarter the previous year. Major subsidy cuts in Spain, Germany and the U.K., plus expiring U.S. tax credits, are largely to blame, researchers said.