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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

OPINION:

As my father used to say, “Set your goals and focus on achieving them.” Wise words. China long ago took them to heart and for thousands of years, they have followed with remarkable success. 

China continues to follow this strategy through a hundred-year plan that has achieved astonishing results. Their biggest competitor, the United States, instead operates quarter-to-quarter and demonstrates little evidence that we’re “in it to win it.”


It should be clear that America needs to reset its focus, to pay more attention to the need for long-term planning to help us regain our once unquestioned preeminence in all areas of energy technology. The Department of Energy’s recent decision to allow the outsourcing to China of the production of advanced battery technology developed with U.S. taxpayer dollars underscores the urgency of doing so. 

A bit of background. It cost the U.S. taxpayers $15 million to develop vanadium redox flow batteries, or VRFBs, at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Expectations are often overstated, but this battery technology is said to be capable of charging and recharging for 30 years without degrading. If this proves valid, it will dramatically advance the viability of batteries in transportation applications and will significantly enrich the Chinese and help them further their goal of leading the world in advanced technology of all types. 

Yet astonishingly, when VRFBs were ready to be commercialized, DOE allowed a transfer of the production from the U.S. to the People’s Republic of China, lock, stock and barrel. As if that weren’t alarming enough, records show that this was allowed to happen in contravention of a licensing agreement granted to a former U.S. government employee who oversaw the initial development of the VRFB technology. That firm, founded by PNNL’s Gary Yang, was required by the licensing agreement to ensure that manufacture of these batteries was done substantially in America.

That didn’t happen. Instead, in 2017 Mr. Yang’s U.S. company, which has been granted the initial production license enlisted a Chinese company, largely funded through entities directly and closely associated with the government of China and China’s Communist Party to do the work.

Again, this was contrary to the requirements set forth in the initial license agreement that would have kept the production here in the U.S. Astonishingly, the Department of Energy was somehow persuaded to go in a different direction, giving the Chinese a hearty thumbs up to access developed-in-America, taxpayer-funded technology. Lang’s U.S. production operations shut down. A $15 million investment by the taxpayers produced no batteries, no jobs and no added value to the gross national product, but scores of millions (potentially) for China. What a deal!

As The Washington Times reported recently, this isn’t sitting well with some members of Congress. Sens. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican, and John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, are demanding an explanation. “We are concerned that this is an overt dereliction of duty by DOE, and that this case may be emblematic of a department that routinely and flippantly permits government-funded technology to be transferred to China,” they wrote in mid-September to Energy Department Inspector General Teri Donaldson.

The VRFB battery scenario is but one example of how China’s focus on dominating the tech world is playing out. Take the more recent incident of its objection to the Inflation Reduction Act provision that American parts and manufacture of electric vehicles must be U.S.-sourced. Beijing balked at this, probably because they want to get their hands on other advanced technologies that may otherwise evade them. 

There’s nothing new here. China long acquired and reverse-engineered American technology in pursuit of global economic dominance. Its effort to reproduce America’s most advanced nuclear technology to produce electricity is ongoing, and the nuclear reactor designs they use and sell around the world today are based on American technology, painstakingly developed.

America must realize globalization is a reality, however much we may not like it. We cannot withdraw from the marketplace. We come in second at our peril. 

China’s ambitions are growing. Their commitment to a hundred-year plan is unwavering. Instead of making excuses as to why we are falling behind in education, safety in our homes and on our streets, competitive focus, and so much more, we must rise to the challenges that present themselves to us from this globalization. In today’s world, we either win or lose. China is intent on winning.   

• Bud Albright is an attorney, former federal prosecutor and former undersecretary of the Department of Energy under George W. Bush. He currently serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Council. 


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