Updated Jan 24, 2018

U.S., a fossil fuel leader, getting outflanked on advanced energy

Pump jacks at an oil well and fracking site in California's San Joaquin Valley. Photo: Citizens of the Planet / Education Images / UIG via Getty Images

The U.S. is set to surpass Saudi Arabia — and possibly Russia — as an oil producer this year, and has set new records for total fossil fuel production. Yet the U.S. is losing ground in the race to dominate fast-growing advanced energy markets, particularly in light of the White House's decision to impose 30% tariffs on solar panel imports — grabbing a larger slice of a shrinking pie through trade barriers while other countries capture new opportunities.

Saudi Arabia, for example, intends to invest $7 billion in renewable projects this year, while a Saudi industrial group is already developing 5 gigawatts of renewable projects globally, with a major focus on Latin America. Another Saudi-Chinese consortium is investing significant sums in Egypt's nascent renewable energy sector.

China is set to account for more than half of global solar deployment and electric vehicle sales this year. Beijing's "Belt and Road" initiative will accelerate the Middle Kingdom's plans to become a clean energy powerhouse, and China is also poised to construct a network of high-voltage power lines across the Eurasian landmass. Add to this the fact that the U.S. will soon fall behind China in overall R&D spending, and the picture of an energy-rich, yet complacent, America emerges.

In offshore wind power, the U.S. currently produces around 30 megawatts, while Denmark — with roughly 1/60 the population and GDP — boasts 1,300 megawatts.

Why it matters: Missing domestic opportunities is one thing — after all, the U.S. is not a fast-growing energy market — but losing the advanced energy race will diminish American influence and competitiveness abroad as the future of energy takes shape.

David Livingston is the deputy director of Climate and Advanced Energy at the Atlantic Council.

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