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China And Clean Energy

November 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 47

The cover story “Chemistry Energizes China” overlooked aggressive Chinese government policies behind their burgeoning clean energy sector (C&EN, Oct. 4, page 10). These policies have been noted recently in opinion pieces in the New York Times and the Huffington Post.

These policies are above and beyond the ongoing concerns over currency valuation. The rather rosy perspective of Jean-François Tremblay and several of the suppliers quoted in the article overlooks the harsh impact that these policies have had on U.S. and other Western clean energy developers, particularly in the solar energy sector. The shine on many U.S. solar companies has quickly faded as jobs and shareholder value have been decimated as a result of “competition.”

This scenario may be replayed in other sectors including wind, energy storage, and clean coal unless there is a robust U.S. response to reduce financing costs and/or reform trade policies via diplomacy or before the World Trade Organization. The lines need to be drawn soon so that clean energy technology doesn’t become yet another drag on the U.S. trade deficit with China.

Michael Wixom
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Regarding Rudy Baum’s editorial “China Ascendant,” I am heartened to see some discourse on the subject but am provoked to respond since he singles out “conservative Republicans, [who] block meaningful energy legislation” with the implication that this is the cause for the fact that China is becoming a global leader in energy technologies vis-à-vis the U.S. (C&EN, Oct. 4, page 3).

Putting politics aside, he should take a deeper and broader view as to why China is so ascendant both in new energy technologies and the chemical industry at large. In my 31 years as an industrial chemist and ACS member, I have witnessed the slow and inexorable decline of the U.S. chemical industry over the course of both conservative and liberal Administrations. It is time that we begin to search honestly for the root causes of this situation, and I suggest that the main one has been public policy. For example, public policy affects labor costs through employment taxes and minimum wage requirements and it affects profitability through income taxes and the like. Second, public policy affects costs through environmental and health and safety regulations.

I read with interest the cover story in C&EN’s Aug. 30 issue, “Securing the Supply of Rare Earths,” which highlights the critical situation regarding China’s control of the rare-earth market (page 9). One irony is that the U. S. holds one of the world’s largest rare-earth mines at Mountain Pass, Calif., which has been closed since 2002. Although the C&EN article only suggested the reason for closure to be price competition from China, a quick search on Google also provided a history which demonstrated that environmental restrictions also played a role. C&EN could dig a little deeper to illustrate the fullness of the issues that burden U.S. industry.

So let me be clear: Until we have an honest debate about the costs and benefits of the choices we make through our public policies, we will not begin to develop successful solutions for the very critical issues that affect our industry or our society. C&EN is in a fine position to be a more responsible servant to the U. S. chemical industry.

David M. Chapman
Glen Burnie, Md.

Message to Rudy Baum: Relax. Our position is only ludicrous to the extent that we emulate China’s efforts on alternative—and wasteful—energy sources.

Only our ill-advised government does that. Investment in uneconomic sources of energy depresses our economy and living standard. We are not in a race with China; not on that field. Let the Chinese do what they want.

Our eyes should focus on European politics. There, the social democratic system is meeting the harsh reality imposed by their common currency. Britain appears to be taking an opposite approach closer to Thatcher’s and Reagan’s. How this plays out on national prosperity should determine which system we should emulate.

If I may say so, your politically inspired editorials are getting a little tiresome. C&EN is still about chemistry, not politics.

A. E. Lippman
St. Louis


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