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(Reuters) - General Electric Co's Jeff Immelt worries the United States may lose ground to China in the renewable energy sector because it is not prepared to invest in solar, wind and other technologies on the same scale.
But the chief executive of the largest U.S. conglomerate said his company remains undaunted and will continue to work in the sector despite the recent bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra, which has attracted intense public attention for failing despite federal loan guarantees.
"China's moving as a country. They have both scale and because they have a central government and -- because this is now a big feature of the next five-year plan -- they're going to build solar, they're going to build wind, they're going to build electric vehicles and they're going to do it on a scale that's vastly superior to the U.S.," Immelt said in a talk at Columbia University in New York that was monitored over the Internet.
The head of GE, which expects to generate $21 billion in revenue this year from green businesses ranging from energy-efficient appliances to electricity-producing wind turbines, said he believes the United States is not pursuing alternative energy on the same scale as China, the world's second-largest economy.
"If you want to lead, you actually have to lead. You can't talk about it. You actually have to do things. And because scale is such a big deal in energy, that's why I worry a little bit about us," said Immelt, who is a top adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama on jobs and the economy.
A controversial federal loan guarantee program worth billions of dollars expired at the end of September. A separate program that gives solar project developers 30 percent cash grant on their development costs will close at the end of the year and will revert to a tax credit.
Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE last month said it would develop a factory in Aurora, Colorado, that will make thin-film solar panels. It said the plant will employ about 355 people and begin operations next year.
Solar panel prices have dropped some 40 percent this year, in part because of a surge of exports by U.S.-listed Chinese companies including Suntech Power Holdings, Yingli Green Energy and Trina Solar. The drop has taken a heavy toll on U.S. makers, not just contributing to Solyndra's demise but leading First Solar Inc last week to slash its 2011 profit forecast.
The U.S. industry has responded to falling Chinese prices by asking Washington to impose stiff duties on Chinese-made panels.
Immelt, who did not address the trade dispute, said he remains confident in the future of solar power.
"We are all-in. We are going to invest what it takes ... Because I know by 2020 this is going to be at least a $1 billion product line. I don't care about Solyndra or any of that other stuff, we did this with no government funding. We can do this," Immelt said.
Solyndra filed for bankruptcy in September, despite $535 million in federal loan guarantees, saying that its products were undercut on price by Chinese competitors. The incident became an embarrassment for the Obama administration, which had touted Solyndra as a prominent example of green job creation.
"It's fair to be critical of Solyndra but make no mistake, in India and China between now and 2020 there is going to be 200 gigawatts of solar power (installed)," Immelt said. "So let's not lose the forest for the trees. It's not like something is inherently wrong with solar energy."
Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston, additional reporting by Matt Daily in New York, editing by Matthew Lewis