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Should the U.S. compete or cooperate with China on clean energy?

Amid recent studies suggesting the United States is losing the clean energy edge to China, the U.S. Department of Energy is helping fund a joint research center.

On Monday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced $37.5 million in U.S. funding over the next five years for the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, to be located at existing facilities in both countries. The Center will focus on energy efficiency, clean vehicles and carbon capture from coal plants.

U.S. entities (companies, universities, national labs) that receive DOE grants will need to match the funds with their own money, and China will put in an additional $75 million, bringing total funding to $150 million.

“By jointly developing new technologies and learning from China’s experiences, we can create new export opportunities for American companies and ensure that we remain on the cutting edge of innovation,” Chu said. “This partnership will also be a foundation for broader partnerships with China on cutting carbon pollution.”

Is this the right approach? Should the United States be competing with China or working with it to develop clean energy technologies?

Several recent studies show China as the world’s new clean-energy powerhouse.

In 2009, for the first time in five years, China pushed the U.S. out of the top spot in spending on clean energy, according to a new study by The Pew Charitable Trusts. China now leads the world in producing solar panels and installing wind turbines.

China is also close to overtaking the U.S. for its total amount of installed renewable energy. It plans to get 15% of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

The U.S. could miss its chance to lead the expanding clean-energy industry unless its policies change to encourage more investment, Pew’s project director Phyllis Cuttino tells USA TODAY colleague Julie Schmit in a recent story.

About $90 billion of the three-year Recovery Act’s funding is targeted at building a clean energy economy.

Another report released this month, Clean Energy Trends 2010 by Clean Edge, a private research firm, discusses China’s new clean-tech dominance.

“It’s too early to declare China the de facto winner,” the report says, adding “no one country or region will lead in all clean energy sectors.”

Also, it says China still faces “significant … pollution issues that could stand in the way of true clean-energy leadership,” and while its government is making investments, “it still constricts the free flow of information.”

Already, though, leading U.S. technology companies such as California-based Applied Materials are moving executives to China, according to a recent New York Times story. “A few American companies,” it says, “are even making deals with Chinese companies to license Chinese technology.”

President Obama and President Hu Jintao announced they would launch the new joint research center during Obama’s trip to Beijing last November.

In announcing the funds Monday, DOE said the initial research will focus on “areas where the U.S. and China have complementary strengths,”so each country will benefit from the collaboration. It said U.S. funds will only support work by U.S. institutions and individuals.

Via USA Today