Steven Chu – Our Sputnik Moment

November 30, 2010

In an address to the National Press Club, Energy Secretary Steven Chu sounded an alarm about America’s slipping technological leadership in the critical strategic area of renewable energy.

China in particular has made a national commitment to leadership in renewable energy technologies. Unlike the US, China has a Renewable Energy Standard, a goal for a percentage of power to be produced by solar, wind, and other sustainable means.

They expect to exceed the 15 percent goal, and may be producing as much as 20 percent of their energy renewably by 2020, according to Chu.

Renewable energy is, of course, what climate deniers and their fossil fuel funders fear most. For example, Climate Denier Christopher Monckton’s website prominently features a plan to block “insidious” renewable energy standards that would jumpstart US competitiveness.

This kind of organized, paranoid ignorance is good news for China, but bad news for the US, and for the planet in the long run.

Representative Jay Inslee recently made this point emphatically in an interview on Fox News.

Update: Here are key slides from Secretary Chu’s powerpoint, that prepared, but was not shown at the luncheon, due to National Press Club rules.
The entire ppt is here.

A DOE press release highlighted several crucial technologies where the United States must innovate or risk falling far behind, including:
High Voltage Transmission. China has deployed the world’s first Ultra High Voltage AC and DC lines – including one capable of delivering 6.4 gigawatts to Shanghai from a hydroelectric plant nearly 1300 miles away in southwestern China. These lines are more efficient and carry much more power over longer distances than those in the United States.
High Speed Rail. In the span of six years, China has gone from importing this technology to exporting it, with the world’s fastest train and the world’s largest high speed rail network, which will become larger than the rest of the world combined by the end of the decade. Some short distance plane routes have already been cancelled, and train travel from Beijing to Shanghai (roughly equivalent to New York to Chicago) has been cut from 11 hours to 4 hours.
Alternative Energy Vehicles. China has developed a draft plan to invest $17 billion in central government funds in fuel economy, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles, with the goal of producing 5 million new energy vehicles and 15 million fuel-efficient conventional vehicles by 2020.
Renewable Energy. China is installing wind power at a faster rate than any nation in the world, and manufactures 40 percent of the world’s solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. It is home to three of the world’s top ten wind turbine manufacturers and five of the top ten silicon based PV manufacturers in the world.
Supercomputing. Last month, the Tianhe-1A, developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology, became the world’s fastest supercomputer. While the United States – and the Department of Energy in particular – still has unrivalled expertise in the useful application of high performance computers to advance scientific research and develop technology, America must continue to improve the speed and capacity of our advanced supercomputers.

On the positive side, Secretary Chu mentioned a number of key areas of US Research:

Revolutionary Electric Vehicle Batteries — 500 Miles on a Single Charge. With the help of Recovery Act funding, Arizona-based Fluidic Energy is working with Arizona State University to develop a new generation of “metal-air” batteries that can store many times more energy than standard lithium-ion batteries. Metal-air batteries contain high energy metals and literally breathe oxygen from the air, giving them the ability to store extreme amounts of energy. To date, the development of these batteries has been blocked by the limitations of using unstable water based solutions that break down and evaporate out of the battery as it breathes. Fluidic Energy’s innovative approach involves ionic liquids – extremely stable salts in liquid form — using no water at all. If successful, the effort could yield batteries that weigh less, cost less, and are capable of carrying a four passenger electric car 500 miles without recharging, at a cost competitive with internal combustion engines. Read the fact sheet on the project (pdf – 264 kb), which is part of DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Converting Sunlight Into Usable Fuel. Through a newly established Energy Innovation Hub led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers are working to create an integrated system modeled after photosynthesis that can convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into usable fuels such as gasoline. The goal is to create a system of artificial photosynthesis that is ten times more efficient than traditional photosynthesis in converting sunlight into fuel — paving the way for a major expansion of America’s biofuel industry and reducing our dependence on oil.

I’ll be refreshing and updating my series on Renewable Energy Solutions in coming months. Solving the climate problem will help solve not just environmental problems, but rescue the ailing US economy as well.

Late addition
Ok, I had a request that there be music during breaks in the speech.
So here it is. Let me know if you like the spare, minimal version, or the groovy ( or annoying) ambient music version. — Peter

9 Responses to “Steven Chu – Our Sputnik Moment”

  1. danolner Says:

    The right wing media in the UK is doing this in a much more doddery, almost endearing way: regularly posting stories about the dangers energy-saving lightbulbs pose to older people (who may fall down and die while the bulb warms up); re-usable bags (may harbour deadly bacteria); eco-fridges (will explode and destroy your kitchen. Seriously) etc.

    I was just reading some of Glenn Beck’s “watermelon theory” stuff at Thinkprogress –

    The US right seems a lot more professional at this stuff than the UK can manage!

  2. livinginabox Says:

    I suspect that were a poll was taken of the most dirty US politicians listed by, that they’d describe themselves as highly patriotic, as indeed would the apologists for coal, oil and all those morons sending hate mail and death threats to climate scientists.

    But their arguments make no sense.

    Buying foreign oil funds nations and regimes with often hugely undesirable human rights records and it also unfairly stifles the viability of renewable technologies.

    What Stephen Chu has revealed has long been foreseeable and indeed was predicted some time ago. The fact is that India and China have for some time been training graduates like crazy, they value knowledge and scientists and that they have no home-grown anti-science movement. The US cannot assume that it will be always able to recruit from abroad and therefore it will have to train its own citizens as scientists and technologists. The US will need scientists of the future to provide new science and technologies. Anti-science must inevitably deter some from pursuing a scientific career.

    The US has no inalienable right to a lead in world technology and science. Unfortunately there seems to have been the assumption among some at least of the political right that the US’ political structure naturally assured the US an unassailable lead in matters scientific and technological and that lead would continue indefinitely.

    Now that mantle has slipped, it is a wake-up call for all US citizens to recognise that not only is anti-science deeply un-American, but that anti-science in all its forms is indeed anti-American and can never again be acceptable.

    It’s time to remove the protection granted under the Constitution guaranteeing individuals’ right to self expression and stop individuals libelling and slandering scientists without the need to provide any proof.

  3. BlueRock Says:

    It would be grimly satisfying to think that the conservative knuckleheads are going to get exactly what they deserve with their anti-progress agenda – but unfortunately they will drag all the sane people down with them. 😦

    > Fluidic Energy … Read the fact sheet on the project (pdf – 264 kb), which is part of DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

    Peter, we seem to be missing a link there. TIA.

  4. […] the source of the image above (h/t Ecocentric).  What follows is a video of the talk and an excerpted post by videographer extraordinaire Peter Sinclair on his Climate Crocks blog: In an address to the […]

  5. […] the beginning of his address to the National Press Club, Steven Chu noted that he had spent considerable time working on a powerpoint presentation, only to […]

  6. jonjermey Says:

    Given the fantastic sums of money wasted by both sides on putting people into space and on the Moon for no discernible benefit, ‘Sputnik moment’ is a totally appropriate term.

  7. otter17 Says:

    No discernible benefit, eh?

    From the manned space race we have developed new materials, satellites that can make measurements never before possible, and a number of other R&D efforts that have brought progress to science and engineering.

    In the same vein, this race toward renewable energy will have numerous benefits. This race will develop methods for powering a modern society for hundreds or possibly thousands of years into the future. Because of this, our modern society will not burn out quickly like a firecracker, but we will shine brightly and steadily like a torch for years to come. It’s amazing that we as humans have the foresight to see this opportunity, and some are acting on it.

    To say that the space race or this renewables race are fantastic wastes of money with no benefit is a slap in the face of all the scientists, mathematicians, and engineers that made these races even possible.

  8. […] his recent address to the National Press Club, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who has urged a rapid transition to renewable energy, was asked about possible bottlenecks in the […]

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