How America Could Get Rich by Going Green

In our "Where America Stands" series, CBS News is looking at a broad spectrum of issues facing the country in the new decade.




CBS News correspondent Celia Hatton reports wind turbines that can be seen slicing the sky above rural Minnesota were manufactured more than 6,000 miles away by a Chinese company. They're helping to power the nearby town of Pipestone.

"The wind is blowing nearly all the time," said Pipestone resident Elmer Stoltenberg. "We should take advantage of that."

In New Jersey, one Rutgers University campus gets 10 percent of its energy from 7,000 solar panelsalso made by a Chinese company.

China has a dirty reputation as the world's factory, but its emerging green energy sector is threatening to leave the United States in its dust.

The overall environmental report card is not pretty for either country. China is the world's top producer of greenhouse gases. The United States is a close second, followed by Russia, India and Japan.

China burns mountains of coal -- the dirtiest form of energy -- for 70 percent of its power. The nation consumes 2-and-a-half billion tons each year. Twenty-three percent of America's energy also comes from coal, using 1.2 billion tons annually.

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The U.S. population is less than a quarter of the size of China's, but Americans consume almost 6 times more energy per person than the Chinese -- though that's changing.

China also guzzles almost 8 million barrels of oil daily, or 8 percent of the world's total, while Americans burn through 19-and-a-half million barrels, or 21 percent.

America's oil use has been declining since 2007, while China's getting thirstier. Oil consumption there is rising 5 percent a year.

Modern lifestyles are also on the rise in China, demanding vast amounts of electricity. That's why Chinese authorities are hungry for renewable energy to keep China's people satisfied and the economy humming.

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Chinese leaders are investing heavily in green sectors like wind and solar, and that's where experts say China scores an "A."

In his State of the Union address this year, President Barack Obama said, "The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation."

The Problem:
Like it or not, China's the country cashing in on the green revolution.

That's a problem for America, according to Kenneth Lieberthal,a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

"We're going to have to end up using those technologies on a very large scale," Lieberthal said. "The question is whether we are producing them - or whether we have to end up buying them from the Chinese or others because we didn't get our act together."

Extended Interview with Peggy Liu

China has become the number one exporter of solar panels, supplying 29 percent of the world's $13.7 billion market, while the U.S. trails at 6 percent.

Chinese manufacturers also dominate the market in eco-products: from electric bikes and solar hot water heaters to mass-produced electric cars. In a few years, China's also expected to become the top exporter of wind turbines, and a major user of them too. There are more than 12,000 wind turbines stretching across China.

China's turbines generate just over 12,000 megawatts of energy, vs. more than 25,000 megawatts in America. But it's catching up fast: its wind capacity has doubled annually since 2002.

Green Energy is the 21st Century

All this activity is putting food on the table for workers like 37-year-old Wang Meiqiu. Her hometown, the city of Baoding in China's central Hebei province, was once a decaying factory zone. But, with major state backing, it's being reborn into an unlikely eco-hub boasting 29,000 new jobs, including one for Wang.

"This is solving our unemployment problem," she said.

The U.S. faces a huge disadvantage in situations like this. The average factory worker in China costs a company 81 cents an hour to employ, compared to an average of $29.98 an hour for a worker in the United States. Even after taking China's low cost of living into account, it's a difference America can't match.

The disparity brings down China's prices. Chinese wind turbines, for instance, are often smaller and lower in quality than those made in other countries, but on average they cost 30 percent less.

Tim and Alana Nelson sell eco-products online from Washington state. They say competition from China has encouraged all solar panel companies to drop their prices - while quality's improved.

Fire Mountain Solar

"You can put a Chinese panel next to an American one and unless you see the label, you can't tell the difference," Alana said.

China's also shepherding new research: cutting-edge Chinese technology traps the carbon dioxide released when burning coal. Costing $30 per ton of captured carbon, it's cheaper than similar American and European technology costing $40-80 a ton.

The Solution:
So, what solution will allow the United States to catch up to China?

Many say in the short-term, America needs to encourage joint ventures with China, bringing renewable energy costs down for everyone.

In the long-term, experts say U.S. government polices should build on America's strengths: technological innovation and highly efficient manufacturing to compete with China's unbeatable wages.

Ken Ames is the CEO of SeeSmart.His Vista, Calif., company makes cutting-edge LED light bulbs in Shenzhen, China. Ames says he'd relocate all his production stateside if he could break through Washington's red tape.

"There's going to have to be grants available - readily available - for companies like us that are going to bring the jobs, bring the technology," Ames said.

Analysts say the Obama administration is committed to clean energy, investing $80 billion in stimulus funding in hopes of fostering $150 billion in new projects. However, many argue the U.S. lacks Beijing's unified political will.

New political initiatives, coupled with old-fashioned American ingenuity, could help the U.S. embrace what Chinese entrepreneurs already know:

It's possible to get rich by going green. A move that just might make the planet healthier too.


Where America Stands Links
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  • Celia Hatton

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