Chu discusses clean energy agenda

By Erin Voegele | January 28, 2011

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu hosted an online town hall meeting Jan. 26 as a follow up to President Obama’s State of the Union address. During the online event, Chu discussed the administration’s clean energy agenda and answered questions posed by listeners.

Chu opened the discussion by stressing the importance of unleashing the “innovation machine” in the U.S. He also spoke about the need to improve education so that young people have the opportunity to learn skills necessary to participate in the new clean energy economy, and the need to rebuild the country’s mature infrastructure in order to become more competitive.

The president spoke about this being a Sputnik moment, Chu said, referring to the space race that kicked off in the 1960s with Russia’s satellite launch. “Clearly, it showed that at that point in time the Soviet Union had a space technology that was superior to the United States,” Chu continued. “We were not able to put up a satellite, and it was a wakeup call. We had fallen behind technologically.” Instead of responding by putting more money in to missiles and defense, President Eisenhower responded by focusing on improving science and educational infrastructure that would make our country more competitive in the long run. President Kennedy furthered the goal by setting the ambitious goal of putting a man on the moon in less than a decade.

“Today’s Sputnik moment is the realization that we are no longer the technological leaders in all the sectors of innovation that we would like to be,” Chu said. “We have lost the lead in some of these instances; many of them having to do with energy.” Other countries have recognized that the world will need these technologies in the future and are working to develop them, Chu continued, noting that China, Korea, Japan and Europe are the most notable examples. “These are competitors,” he said. “It’s the realization that technological leadership and innovation cannot be taken for granted.” Chu also stressed the president’s point that that we do have the greatest innovation machine in the world. Given the right direction and use, that innovation machine can make us leaders in clean energy.

In a way, it’s a race to make alternative sources of energy cost competitive with fossil fuels, Chu continued. “The people who win in that [race] will certainly have a head up on what you can sell internationally in this market,” he said. “So, the president called for the creation of three new energy innovation hubs. As you know, these are hubs where you put scientists and engineers, ideally, under the same roof marching towards a common goal. It needs to do the scientific discovery, but is also needs to do the things that lead to the private sector picking it up and taking it to the marketplace. These innovation hubs, you can think of as the Apollo projects for our time.”

“The American innovation machine is absolutely the best in the world,” Chu continued. We have the most innovative and best research universities, national laboratories and entrepreneurs, and our future jobs and future wealth will depend on it, he said. “I think we can rise to the challenge.”

While the discussion focused primarily on renewable electricity, Chu did briefly discuss biofuels. “The power of new biology can be used to help make significant progress in our energy challenges,” he said. “This is why, in part, the Department of Energy is so gung-ho on biofuels.” There are incredible opportunities with advanced biofuels, he continued, noting the science if evolving rapidly. Do we have technology today that can produce $2 per gallon renewable gasoline from agricultural wastes? Not yet, he said. But there is a reasonably high probability that we are going to get there. “I can’t predict exactly when,” he continued, “but there are a lot of exciting things going on.”

An archive of the event can be accessed on the U.S. DOE’s website. For more information on the State of the Union address, please see “Obama: We are seeing the potential of renewable energy.”

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