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Is the U.S. missing the boat on green tech?

GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt and famed venture capitalist John Doerr warn policy makers that the U.S. is lagging China in developing green-technology industries.

The United States risks missing the business opportunity posed by moving to low-carbon energy, two prominent business leaders argued in an editorial aimed at policy makers.

General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt and venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, published an editorial in The Washington Post Monday to warn that the U.S. is lagging China is developing clean-energy technologies.

John Doerr, investor at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Martin LaMonica/CNET

"We are clearly not in the lead today. That position is held by China, which understands the importance of controlling its energy future. China's commitment to developing clean energy technologies and markets is breathtaking," they wrote.

A giant conglomerate, GE is deeply involved in the energy industry and is one of the top global suppliers of wind turbines. One of Silicon Valley's top venture capital companies, Kleiner Perkins has been aggressively pursuing green technology, having invested $680 million in 48 upstarts.

But Doerr and Immelt run through a number of statistics to demonstrate that the U.S. is so far a bit player in the global marketplace for solar, wind, advanced batteries, and fuel efficiency.

The U.S. continues to produce innovative companies in the Internet but they argue that policies in energy, a highly regulated field, stifle innovation and U.S. competitiveness: "Our government's energy and climate policies are our principal obstacle to success," they said.

Both Immelt and Doerr are economic advisers to President Obama and executives from both companies regularly have testified on energy and climate policies for Congressional committees.

At a high level, the position of these companies--and many others--is that developing low-carbon products and services will serve both economic and environmental goals: low-carbon technologies, such as efficient lighting or solar, can revitalize American industry and curb greenhouse gases.

In the editorial, Doerr and Immelt said U.S. policies should indicate that the U.S. values "low-carbon energy."

They offered five policy prescriptions: put a price on carbon and cap emissions; regulate utilities with incentives for efficiency and renewable energy; strengthen efficiency standards for cars, buildings, and appliances; establish more federal funding for research, development, and deployment of energy technologies; and create new trade agreements to promote the export of U.S. products.

Crux of the issue
Doerr and Immelt's piece strikes at the heart of the energy and environment policy debate in the U.S. There are a number of technologies that can displace fossil fuel use right now and new technologies, such as plug-in electric vehicles, hold more promise.

But proposals to encourage deployment of these technologies at scale has met resistancefrom entrenched interests and some lawmakers. Among the concerns are that climate and clean-energy policies will significantly raise energy prices for consumers and hurt U.S. industry compete globally.

GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Still, work continues on energy and climate policy in Washington even though much of the media attention is on the health care debate.

The House narrowly passed an energy and climate bill that would mandate more renewable energy from utilities and establish a cap-and-trade system for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from large polluters. The Senate is devising its version of the bill and could vote on it in the fall.

Some environmental groups, notably Greenpeace, have criticized the House's climate and energy bill for giving big businesses such as utilities too much leeway in meeting the cap on carbon emissions, which will be phased in on over the next decade.

People in green technology business, in general, favor the billbecause it establishes a system for pricing carbon emissions and has other policies to invest in energy-related infrastructure, such the electricity grid technologies and battery manufacturing.