US in danger of losing green-tech competition, experts say

Two green tech experts call for major government programs to drive investment in alternative energies.

The next industrial revolution will not be in IT, but in ET -- energy technology -- and the U.S. is in danger of missing the boat, two green tech experts said Wednesday.

The U.S. is investing only a fraction of the money needed to drive innovations in green tech, and the U.S. government is not providing enough incentives for companies and residents to adopt energy alternatives, author Thomas Friedman and venture capitalist John Doerr told a U.S. Senate committee.

The U.S. government needs large-scale programs to provide research and development funding for energy startups and loans for alternative energy companies, Doerr told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. In addition, the U.S. government needs to tax the use of carbon-based fuels as a way to drive users from oil and gas to alternative energy sources, both Doerr and Friedman said.

If U.S. residents want to continue to burn carbon fuels, they should pay the entire cost, including the cost of environmental clean-up and the cost of maintaining troops in the Middle East, Friedman added. Without new carbon taxes, U.S. residents won't adopt new energy alternatives, he said.

Government action is needed "establish America's leadership on green technology, because that is not assured," said Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm that has invested in several IT companies. "What we are doing in recent years is not enough. We must act now, and we must act with speed and scale."

Only six of the world's top 30 alternative energy companies are based in the U.S., Doerr said.

The implications of the U.S. not being a world leader in green tech are staggering, said Friedman, author of economic-focused books, "The World is Flat" and "Hot, Flat and Crowded." The U.S. is in a race with other countries to come up with alternative energy industries, he said.

"Whichever countries or communities can come up with energy innovation, efficiency and conservation, with a source of abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons and molecules, will ... be able to undermine petro-dictatorships, mitigate climate change, ease energy poverty, and I think dramatically reverse biodiversity loss," he said. "The country that owns that is going to have the most national security, energy security, economic security, innovative companies, health climate and global respect."

The most innovative green tech company must be the U.S., Friedman told senators. "If it's not the United States of America, the chance that our kids enjoy the standard of living we have enjoyed is zero," he added.

Some people have called for a U.S. government green energy mission on the scale of the 1960s space program, or the 1940s Manhattan Project, in which the U.S. developed nuclear weapons, Doerr noted. "Those were merely multi-billion-dollar efforts in single government agencies, and they fail miserably to convey the scale of this challenge," he added.

Many people, including some members of the Senate committee, dispute that there's evidence of global warming, but there's little disputing that the world's population is skyrocketing, more than doubling since Friedman's birth in 1953, and there's a burgeoning global middle class that wants to consume products and energy like U.S. residents have, Friedman said. Even after discounting global warming, the need for new energy technology is the most important issue the world is facing, he said.

While many U.S. companies and entrepreneurs are working on energy alternatives, the U.S. government needs to provide leadership and incentives, he said. "We need to get back to nation-building at home in America," he said. "We need to get our groove back."

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