Can the United States Manufacture Solutions to the Climate Crisis, Or Will We Lose the Global Race?

By Stockton Grunewald
Feb 02 2022 |
Wind turbines near Palm Springs, Calif. Getty Images

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis examined how the United States can build the technology needed to reduce carbon emissions, creating jobs and securing the future in the process.

The global race is on to build clean energy industries – and the United States is not only up against some serious competitors, but also fighting decades of bad policy that offshored our production capabilities and supply chains. 

Now it’s time to get back on track. 

The House of Representatives Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held a digital hearing on Wednesday to examine the best path forward for a clean energy future that’s also Made in the USA. Experts from across industries offered a flurry of ideas to get America’s manufacturing base moving again, and one thing is clear: Time is of the essence. 

“America has met challenges like these before and I’m confident we will do so again. We know what we need to do,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chair of the committee. “We are in a hyper competitive race with China and other countries to build these industries… We can’t afford to lose it.” 

Citing House Democrats’ Climate Action Response Plan, Castor argued that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides the United States with a firm foundation for the future. But, more investment is needed in solar, wind, and other green technology to truly transform America’s approach. 

The United States is up against some self-inflicted hurdles. Jessica Eckdish, vice president of legislation and federal affairs for the BlueGreen Alliance (BGA), pointed out that the country has lost nearly 5 million manufacturing jobs since 1997 – a statistic readers of this blog know all too well.  

“We are fighting against decades of short-sighted policies,” she said. 

The COVID crisis “revealed profound weaknesses in our critical supply chain,” Eckdish said.

Not only did the United States lack things like face masks and ventilators at the start of the pandemic, but continued supply chain issues have made it harder to get critical inputs like semiconductors. 

As the U.S. looks to transition to a clean energy economy, this crisis will continue unless we reshore many of our critical supply chains and be able to source key materials locally. For example, Ranking Member Garret Graves (R-La.) stressed energy security concerns, hoping that any potential legislation in this area would include efforts “to source our own strategic and rare Earth minerals to meet the needs of energy needs and energy storage demands.” 

Other countries are already hard at work at building out their own capabilities, experts noted.  

“Worldwide, our competitors are rushing to capture the manufacturing and jobs gains in a rapidly emerging clean economy,” Eckdish said. “The decisions we make now will determine whether the next generation of investments are made here in the U.S. and whether those investments will result in the kind of good paying jobs that are often out of reach for too many Americans.” 

How can the United States reach these goals? Eckdish argued that the federal government could do more to encourage investment.

“First, deployment incentives are needed to ensure faster, broader and fairer adoption of domestic manufactured electric vehicles,” she said. “Second, we have to invest to make the U.S. a leading manufacturer of EVs and the technology that goes into them… onshore critical supply chains like battery, cells, and materials that go into them. Third, modernize and cut emission from our energy intensive industry base … and finally, make sure these investments translate into good jobs and are targeted to revitalize deindustrialized communities and build new pathways into family supporting careers.”

Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), said her industry needs to employ an additional 800,000 workers to meet the White House’s solar goals. Of those 800,000, around 30,000 new hires will be involved in domestic manufacturing of solar panels, she said. 

There’s a big challenge when it comes to solar, though. Despite an ambitious start, the solar manufacturing industry in the United States has been decimated over the past decade, due in large part to unfairly traded imports. China now dominates the global solar industry, and research has found that nearly all of its industry is reliant on forced labor. 

Pressed on how to decouple the solar industry’s dependence on China, Hopper argued that companies need certainty – but added that the U.S. has the capacity to “build out” solar development. 

“There absolutely is a great interest in onshoring a lot of the manufacturing processes,” she said. 

Charles McConnell, executive director of the Center for Carbon Management and Energy Sustainability at the University of Houston, said utilizing existing energy infrastructure to develop and export new green and sustainable models can help the world tackle the climate crisis. “Such investments in [carbon capture] technology do pay dividends for the American people,” McConnell said. 

“We cannot grow by subtraction. AND is the mission,” McConnell added. “Reliable, affordable and resilient energy… and the elimination of greenhouse gases… Making it in America is really the choice.” 

Some industries are transitioning to cleaner practices. Paul Browning, President & CEO (North America) of the Fortescue Future Industries (FFI) is leading his company toward a goal of producing hydrogen from 100% renewable sources.  

“Companies are demanding green steel and green aluminum,” Browning said, noting that the steelmaking process of turning iron ore into iron uses a lot of coal. In the future, Browning hopes the industry can use hydrogen to do the same thing. 

Indeed, many American steel companies already are working toward sustainability. U.S. Steel, for example, is aiming to become carbon neutral by 2050; Cleveland-Cliffs also is working toward significantly reducing its carbon emissions.  

There’s a lot that Congress and policymakers can do to encourage local manufacturing and build out a clean energy economy, Eckdish said. Government procurement is one place to start, she said.  

Officials should ensure taxpayer money spent on clean energy is reinvested into American workers and companies. The United States also needs to put an industrial policy in place, including by investing in factories and assembly plants in the United States. 

“Whether or not workers across America see the gains from the coming clean economy depends on what Congress does now,” Eckdish said. “The U.S. can once again lead the world in manufacturing the technologies and products of the future – but we need a proactive strategy and a significant national investment to do so.”