By Michael Shank, Elena Krieger and Julia Trezona Peek

This month’s report on renewable energy markets from the International Energy Agency indicates that by 2020, China will account for almost 40 percent of the growth in renewable energy capacity. The United States, meanwhile, lags behind, obsessed with its natural gas boom and riveted by remaining oil reserves on its federally protected lands.

As a result, the U.S. is missing an incredible economic opportunity. Last year alone, new renewable power capacity expanded at its fastest pace yet, and global electricity generation from renewables was roughly on par with that from natural gas. In energy terms, that means annual global renewable power generation rose by 5 percent to over 5,000 terawatt hours – more than enough to power the entire United States.

China has seen the writing on the wall and is heavily investing in its renewable energy sector, especially since renewable electricity now accounts for more than 20 percent of global generation. Chinese companies control the largest share of the $100 billion solar photovoltaic industry. And who can blame them? China is responding to international demand while tackling untenable pollution levels at home.

The United States, which has long prided itself on being a leader in innovative technology, should stop debating whether we should transition to renewables and instead focus on how we transition – and how to maximize the economic benefits. Building a grid based primarily on renewable resources can be achieved with existing technologies. But it’ll depend upon federal, state and local support for renewable tax incentives, renewable portfolio standards and decentralized generation. Here’s how we start:

First, we must rapidly increase the deployment of clean energy technology already available. Although non-hydro renewables such as solar and wind technologies barely generated 6 percent of U.S. electricity last year, wind and solar make up nearly a third of generation in some states. The Department of Energy estimates that by 2050 we can provide 80 percent or more of our electricity with renewable resources.

Second, the U.S. needs to pilot, test and promote the deployment of technologies that have not been scaled in the mass market. Technology that stores renewable energy is a great example. Storage can improve overall grid efficiency as well as bridge gaps in generation when the wind stops blowing or the sun sets. California has set an ambitious energy storage goal to test and scale a large portfolio of technologies. These technologies will be ready for large-scale manufacturing and deployment when they become critical for the integration of high rates of renewables nationwide.

Lastly, planning for the future, the U.S. must ramp up advanced energy research and the production and manufacturing of advanced clean energy technology. Integrating high levels of renewables requires years of preparation, and poor planning can lock us into expensive, inefficient infrastructure. The renewable grid won’t materialize overnight. It will require an upfront investment, but will quickly pay for itself and create skilled, green jobs in a lagging economy.

China is creating an average of 100,000 clean energy jobs each year. A recent Stanford study suggested that converting to a renewable-powered energy system could yield more than 200,000 jobs in California alone. Research from UC Berkeley shows that wind and solar create more jobs per megawatt hour generated than coal or natural gas, suggesting that the transition to clean energy will bring immense employment opportunities across the United States. And making the switch brings with it added energy security, grid resiliency and improved air quality.

A new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate warns that delayed infrastructure investment now will increase the costs of the clean energy transition and reduce the economic benefits. That means we need to rapidly deploy the mature technology we have access to today, start scaling existing but underutilized advanced energy technology and fund energy research. We must plan for an advanced grid and halt the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure in order to stay at the forefront of the rapidly evolving energy sector.

The renewable energy boom is here, and it behooves our government to get on board quickly before other countries completely control the market. The U.S. can wait and watch others reap the benefits of reduced emissions, energy security, and a thriving production sector, or it can be a global leader in renewable technology. The choice is ours.

Elena Krieger, Ph.D., is the director of the Renewable Energy Program at PSE Healthy Energy. Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Julia Trezona Peek has an MSc in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University and works in the field of energy, climate and economics.