WASHINGTON (CN) - A day after saying the U.S. stumbled in the renewable energy race, Energy Secretary Steven Chu outlined efforts by the Obama administration to catch up to nations like China that are moving quickly to improve their renewable energy markets. "Countries like China will race ahead," Chu said. "They're not going to wait for us."
Chu highlighted the gravity of climate change - that today's carbon levels have not been seen in the past 2 million years - and outlined what the government is doing to join other nations in addressing the problem. He also revealed plans to stake a claim in the rapidly expanding clean energy market, on which the United States has been losing out.
Chu proposed post-renovation inspections on houses and buildings, research and development, and said that one major help would be to get people to somehow use their appliances more efficiently.
"Behavior is the hardest thing to change, but also the cheapest thing to do," he said. "Let me tell you the worst thing. People leave stuff on even for no reason."
He said that if people insulate their homes and turn appliances off, that alone could significantly increase the nation's energy efficiency.
Chu said the United States once produced about 45 percent of the world's solar panels, but said it now produced only about 7 percent. Ninety-nine percent of batteries found in American hybrid cars are produced in Asia, he said. Center for Strategic and International Studies Senior Fellow David Pumphrey added that China now manufactures more solar panels than the United States.
Chu noted that China is spending $9 billion a month on clean energy, and plans to spend $88 billion by 2020 developing high voltage lines that will carry energy from renewable sources to population centers.
The plan has its drawbacks, Chu noted. "They're putting big tariffs on wind turbines, for example," Chu said.
Some lawmakers have questioned the claim that China is beating the United States in clean energy. But Pumphrey said such a claim is "more reflective of the rate of change that's going on in China" than of the actual percentage of renewable energy.
"China has been growing its renewable energy sector very quickly," he said.
The Recovery Act has put an $80 billion down payment on clean energy, Chu said, and $3.4 billion to invest in a smart grid was announced this week.
Currently, the nation's power-plants are being used only half the time because they have to produce energy during peak hours. A smart grid is expected to even out the load by giving consumers more choice over whether to use energy when it is more expensive during peak times, or when it is cheaper.
In this case, fewer power-plants could be built, saving billions of dollars, Chu said.
The Obama Administration, meanwhile, announced Monday $151 million in grants for clean energy research.
An energy bill now before the Senate would require that U.S. emissions fall 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, stricter than the 17 percent drop mandated by the House bill. Both the House and the Senate bills require an 83 percent drop from 2005 levels by 2050.
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