U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently stated that China and other countries’ successes in clean energy industries represent a new “Sputnik Moment” for the United States. He said that China’s investments in clean energy technologies pose both a challenge and an opportunity for the U.S. if we can mobilize an American innovation machine similar to the one that brought the country success in the space race.

“When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone—and we certainly won’t start now,” said Secretary Chu. “From wind power to nuclear reactors to high speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead. Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: innovate. As President Obama has said, we should not, cannot and will not play for second place.”

DOE Secretary Chu 2011

DOE Secretary Chu appears at The National Press Club to discuss the urgent need for innovation in the alternative fuel vehicle and clean energy industries. Credit: DOE

Chu also said that while China’s experience with rapid, large scale deployment of technologies makes it an important global testing ground and creates opportunities for scientific partnerships between the U.S. and China, it also means that America cannot afford to take its scientific leadership for granted. He stressed that America’s economic competitiveness depends on jump-starting the next round of American innovation in clean energy.

Comparing the U.S. and China on several crucial technologies, Chu made his argument that the U.S. must begin to innovate soon or risk falling far behind. For example, China already trumps the U.S. in installing high-voltage, ultra efficient electric transmission lines and is beginning to export the technology of its high speed rail network – the world’s largest and fastest. Chinese travelers can now take a train from Shanghai to Beijing – a distance roughly equivalent to that between New York and Chicago – in only four hours. China is also rapidly deploying ultra-supercritical coal combustion plants, which burn coal at much higher temperatures and more efficiently. Other areas where China is leading or rapidly catching up include nuclear power generation, renewable energy systems production, supercomputing and alternative fuel vehicles.

Regarding alternative fuel vehicles, Chu said that China has developed a plan to invest $17 billion of central government funds in fuel economy, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles. In addition, China’s goal is to produce five million alternative fuel vehicles by 2020.

The U.S. cannot afford to fall behind in the energy race, said Chu. With 17 national labs and world leading scientific and computing resources, he says that the DOE is on the front lines of America’s effort to lead in clean energy innovation. He also highlighted two innovative research and development projects that will likely lead to competitive economic growth for America. The first is aimed at revolutionizing electric vehicle batteries to increase the driving range of electric vehicles to 500 miles on one charge, and the second involves converting sunlight into fuel using artificial photosynthesis.

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