Energy Secretary Chu: U.S. energy independence is new ‘Sputnik moment’ — but the threat this time comes from China

Amanda Carey Contributor

The pursuit of energy independence is the new Space Race — and this time it’s China edging toward victory over the U.S., rather than the USSR. At least, that’s what Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at an event Monday at the National Press club in Washington.

During an hour-long presentation, Chu told a packed audience of businessmen, lobbyists and government officials such as Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Cathy Zoi that the energy race is America’s new “Sputnik moment,” referring to the first earth-orbiting satellite launched by the Soviets in 1957.

The United States’ rapid response to that threat of Soviet dominance and embarrassment at being surpassed in technological advancements by a communist nation must, according to Chu, to be repeated today for the U.S. to remain competitive.

“I know analogies to Sputnik are trite and overused, but let me suggest that this is something that should be taken seriously,” said Chu before presenting a list of reasons why the U.S. should be concerned about its progress on energy technology compared to China’s.

The new “Sputnik moment,” according to Chu, requires the mobilization of the 1950s and 60s in the race to beat Russia in putting a man on the moon. It also requires the same kind of federal support for short- and long-term bipartisan policies, he said.

Chu noted that since last year, 51 percent of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies. The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 48th in quality for math and science education, and eight of the 10 global companies with the largest budgets for research and development have established facilities in China or India.

On the other hand, China has met the energy challenge by starting construction on 30 (of the 50 worldwide) nuclear reactors, building the world’s fastest super-computer, and by actively working toward reaching their goal of 18 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Chu, who called the portion of the stimulus money allotted for green-energy initiatives an “important down payment,” called on the government to invest even more in energy technology if it is going to keep up with China.

“America still has the opportunity to lead the world in a new industrial revolution,” said Chu, “but I think time is running out. Federal support is critical for our economic competitiveness.”

What kind of technology would keep the U.S. in the same playing field as China? There is no single, right answer, but Chu pointed to several innovations such as affordable electric batteries with a 500-mile range, lowering the cost of bio-fuels, solar power and reduced cost for carbon capture and storage.

“From wind power to nuclear reactors to high speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead,” said Chu. “given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: innovate.”

Chu also took a moment to discuss the corn ethanol subsidies that are up for renewal the end of this year. “This is a complicated economic issue … but we are focusing on ways to go beyond ethanol,” he said. “Ethanol is not ideal.”