Whenever we hear that “America is falling behind” in a race to develop a new technology or grow an older economic sector, we suspect that the person talking doesn’t understand the idea of comparative advantage.
Developed by English economist David Ricardo (his parents were Spanish Jews, hence the un-Englishness of his name) in the nineteenth century, the idea holds that it makes sense for a country to concentrate on producing the goods for which production requires a lower opportunity cost than another country.
To put it more simply, the technologies the US excels in should be those for which we have to sacrifice the least other activities to develop. It’s perfectly fine–indeed, it’s superior–for us to fall behind in other technologies.
So our response was, well, “Big whup?” when John Doerr, a partner at the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, recently told a U.S. Senate energy panel, “The United States led the world in the electronics revolution, and we led in biotechnology and the Internet. But we are letting the energy technology revolution speed by us.”
Doerr pointed out that the U.S. is home to only one of the top 10 wind turbine producers, only one of the 10 largest photovoltaic solar panel producers, and only two of the top 10 advanced-battery manufacturers. But maybe that’s because we’re really good–we enjoy a comparitive advantage–at something else.
And, as it turns out, we are really good at something else: making nuclear power. As Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers points out, we may be losing the race for renewable energy but we’re winning the race for nuclear power.
We have 104 licensed commercial nuclear reactors—generating about 20% of our electricity and more than 70% of all carbon-free electricity. My company, the North Carolina-based Duke Energy, has seven reactors and we are planning three more. France operates 58 reactors and China has 11, but it is currently building 24 more.
Additionally, the U.S. remains a leader in researching and developing nuclear technologies. Our national labs and private sector know-how provide the resources and the scientific foundation for the U.S. to compete as a global leader in commercial nuclear power.
Our private-sector expertise and interest in new nuclear plants is causing regional energy hubs to sprout up, creating thousands of well-paying jobs. In our headquarters city of Charlotte, N.C., Toshiba America Nuclear Energy recently announced it is adding about 200 new jobs and investing nearly $3 million to establish a nuclear power construction management centre…
We must maintain this momentum. Not only is this a major shot in the arm for our local and national economies, but with zero greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power is tailor-made for addressing climate change. This is critical as Congress prepares to put a price on carbon.
Investing in new nuclear power plants, which produce electricity 24 hours a day and seven days a week, can be a major growth engine for our economy. Nuclear plants can be located close to growing demand centres, and next to existing transmission lines. Renewables, which produce power intermittently, must often be sited far from cities and the grid…
When it comes to creating thousands of 21st century jobs—energy jobs on which we can rebuild the middle class—nuclear power clearly has the edge. We can and must grow our lead.
Remember. We really don’t want to be the world leader in everything in the world. We want to be the leader in stuff we’re good at.
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