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Energy Secretary Chu says US faces a new “Sputnik Moment” in China’s clean energy successes

29 November 2010

In a speech at the National Press Club, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that the success of China and other countries in clean energy industries represents a new “Sputnik Moment” for the United States, and will require a similar mobilization of innovation to enable the US to compete in the global race for the jobs of the future.

Secretary Chu observed that China’s investments in clean energy technologies represent both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States. 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 two countries, it also means that the US cannot afford to take its scientific leadership for granted. Secretary Chu stressed that US economic competitiveness depends on jump-starting the next round of American innovation in clean energy. Specifically, Secretary Chu highlighted several crucial technologies where the United States must innovate or risk falling far behind, such as:

The original Sputnik Moment
On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union placed Sputnik—a 184-pound satellite—into a low earth orbit. The first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, Sputnik beat the US and its Project Vanguard to space.
Two generations after the event, words do not easily convey the American reaction to the Soviet satellite. The only appropriate characterization that begins to capture the mood on 5 October involves the use of the word hysteria. A collective mental turmoil and soul-searching followed, as American society thrashed around for the answers...
Almost immediately, two phrases entered the American lexicon to define time, pre-Sputnik and post-Sputnik. The other phrase that soon replaced earlier definitions of time was Space Age. With the launch of Sputnik 1, the Space Age had been born and the world would be different ever after.
  1. 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 1,300 miles (808 miles) away in southwestern China. These lines are more efficient and carry much more power over longer distances than those in the United States.

  2. 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.

  3. Advanced Coal Technologies. China is rapidly deploying supercritical and ultra-supercritical coal combustion plants, which have fewer emissions and are more efficient than conventional coal plants because they burn coal at much higher temperatures and pressures. Last month, Secretary Chu toured an ultra-supercritical plant in Shanghai which claims to be 45 to 48% efficient. The most efficient US plants are about 40% efficient. China is also moving quickly to design and deploy technologies for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants as well as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

  4. Nuclear Power. China has more than 30 nuclear power plants under construction, more than any other country in the world, and is actively researching fourth generation nuclear power technologies.

  5. 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.

  6. Renewable Energy. China is installing wind power at a faster rate than any nation in the world, and manufactures 40% 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.

  7. 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&mash;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, the US must continue to improve the speed and capacity of its advanced supercomputers, Chu said.

There are differences between the original Sputnik event of 1957 and the current Sputnik Moment, Chu said:

  • While the US is competing for leadership in energy innovation, it has much to gain by cooperating with China, India and other countries.
  • In the next two decades, China will build new infrastructure equivalent to the entire US. 80% of India’s infrastructure in 2030 does not exist today. These countries present the US with potential new markets, and a laboratory for innovation.

Chu called for increased support of energy R&D, especially where private investments don’t recoup the full value of the shared social good or when a new technology would displace an embedded way of doing business. He also called for “sensible”, long-range energy policies that have bipartisan support to guide the private sector of US.

Secretary Chu detailed a number of promising research efforts supported by the Department of Energy now underway, including:

  • 500-mile EV batteries. With the help of Recovery Act funding, Arizona-based Fluidic Energy is working with Arizona State University to develop a new generation of higher energy density metal-air batteries (metal air ionic liquid batteries, MAIL). 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 approach involves ionic liquids. 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.

  • Solar fuels. 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 the US biofuel industry and reducing dependence on oil.

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Chu brings up some good points, and there might be some limited areas where the GOP and Obama can work together...but I think the America has major spending fatigue right now - especially given the botched results of the trillion dollar stimulus future generations will be paying for: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (where is the recovery?). Everything Chu suggests would require massive new government spending...I'm sorry but we can't compete with China in of the areas he mentions.

Mr. Chu appears to be infatuated with a country other than the one he works for. Considering China's desperate air pollution problems, 11 day traffic jams, and addiction to cheap coal - a high speed train system is a good idea. But how many new gasoline burning vehicles will China put on roads over the next decade? How many coal-fired power plants?


As dramatic as it seems - there is no need for a "Sputnik Moment." The energy revolution is already under way and it ain't China leading it. BUT, to grow jobs, economies and security - Western nations MUST pursue new avenues of energy production and distribution. Else the lead will be lost.

"There are differences between the original Sputnik event of 1957 and the current Sputnik Moment, Chu said:"

No kidding. And few parallels.

On the way back from Vegas, broke, we say "lets install solar cells on the roof".

Like ejj sais. .

Agree with you, ejj.

The US Gov. cannot run bigger deficits. Growth in renewable energy industries (leading to economic recovery) must come from the private sectors. The US gov. can spur massive investment in renewable energy developments by guaranteeing a gradual and predictable rise in the purchasing prices of fossil fuels. This rise should be slow enough so as not put further hardship on the economy, but announce it way ahead of time so that people and industry can adopt by choosing more efficient or alternative-fuel vehicles, factory machines, home insulation, and appliances etc...

Green technology's growth can be the economic engine of the next many decades if the US gov. would wisely orchestrate this today by spurring PRIVATE investments.

The Internet, The Laser, The microchip, GPS, Nuclear Power, the Jet plane all came from Government funded research. Trillions of dollars of our current economy and tens of millions of jobs were made possible by preliminary research paid for by the National Science Foundation, DOE, DOD, NASA, etc. Private investment doesn't have the patience to do very much basic science or building blocks that have very long time horizons and high risk. How many start ups ran out of money and failed before they could complete their big cool idea? However, you do have to spread your bets widely to get enough of them to pay off.

Google was made possible by a relatively small NSF grant on how to do a better online library. $16 Billion is miniscule compared to the value of being leaders in new industries. I'd be thrilled with a 0.25% corporate income tax that pays for a fund that places tens of thousands of bets in promising fundamental science areas. Think of it as a jobs program that has the potential to pay back many fold.

@Roger,

I agree wholeheartedly that much economic good can be achieved quickly through aggressively promoting known, proven, relatively cheap things like painting old industrial roofs white, increasing home insulation, swapping in more compact fluorescent lights, programmable thermostats, and such. It would, for a few years, create tens of thousands of jobs for relatively low skill workers. It could even be an urban peace corps for teens, or something. We should do all of those cheap, bang-for-buck things IN ADDITION TO FUNDING MORE CLEAN ENERGY RELATED RESEARCH.

Just because grants were involved somewhere in the process does not make it Government funded research.

The Manhatten project was indeed government funded

There are many other areas where advancements could be promising. For instance DME or NG implementation for heavy transportation. It would make much more cleaner China cities.
Finding method of direct biosynthesizing diesel and aviation fuel could be breakthrough.
Mass Transit and Personal Rapid Transit combination development could be very promising.
Talking about Nuclear and photo voltaic on the same page it just politics. Photo voltaic has no potential making significant impact and will never have.

Certainly government funding has a place, particularly including where there is the need but little will to restrict or heavily tax some things (like gas usage) for the national interest.

The Prius, Leaf and Volt are privately funded even though the ROI is (so far) poor.

But just because grants were involved somewhere in the process does not make it Government only funded research.

The Manhattan project was indeed government (only) funded as are most defense programs like the GPS, nuclear fission and fusion, tanks and the Hummer plus pure science like the moon landing and space shuttle.

But everything we use, the internet, laser, microchips, the civilian airliners all come from trillions of dollars of private development.

Trillions of dollars of our current economy are wasted and tens of millions of overpaid jobs are made possible by the government because ROI is either of no concern or estimated by politicians.

Russia and Cuba are good examples of how Government control does not work. China is and will for some time develop rapid rapidly on the backs of it’s people.

A high level of government control, like a dictatorship may be the most efficient form of government if nationalism is paramount and individual freedom is not.

I think China benefits from it’s starting point – poverty.
The people will be content for some time as the rapid increase in state wealth improves their standard of living, but as that standard starts to level off, lack of personal freedom will be a problem, it may start to get worse and their society may blow up, or become the Forth Reich.

@Darius

Photo voltaic has no potential making significant impact and will never have.

I'd be interested to see a motivation for that statement.

When is an impact significant? At a contribution of 1%, 5%, 10%, 50%, 100%?

Saying 'never' is suggesting you have a crystal ball in which you see the future. A future in which PV & energy storage technology are the same as today. No R&D, no new discoveries, no price decline, nothing. That is not likely to happen, but you seem to be sure of it. Perhaps you can elaborate on that too: why will development of new and better technology come to a stop?

In the mean time, world wide PV installations will double from 2009 to 2010 from 7.5 GW to ~15 GW. Can you tell me where the market will end? 15 GW/year? 20 GW/year? 100 GW/year?

Anne,

Any energy technology that produces at most 10-12% efficiency, works only intermittently, works only 50% of the time,(daylight), and reduces the planetary albedo, in a way that GHGs never could, is a self limiting technology.

Solar thermal pollution, in which the other wasted 90% of the energy absorbed, just heats the planet at a rate of 230+ watts/sq meter or more, versus .005-.05 w/m2, is not a truly non-polluting alternative.

Just because some "Eco" politicians have not YET recognized the pollution, does not mean its not there.

These ill-informed people at one time, thought MBTE was the solution and much more preferable to tetra-ethyl lead additives, (and it is!), did not mean it did not have problems of its own, that led to its banning.

Now it appears the Montreal Protocol was an ersatz, too hasty, and foolish move, just like MBTE. It is now pretty well established that the original halogens are not the source of a "natural" ozone hole, and the replacements are more inefficient, and waste lots of energy that the original halogens did not.

Please be careful what you wish for, you just may get it.

Trying to forecast future developments is something we've never been very good at. One or two technology breakthroughs and all forecast are off.

One thing may be historically certain is that we will soon reach peak oil and then peak USA or in reverse order. China is going up faster and at that rate will soon surpass USA in many areas. USA's economy and development is being progressively undermined by greed, profiteers, corruption, lobbies and political non-productive in-fighting costing the nation $$T/year. That may be the main reasons for most empires to go down. The 2000-2008 period was a perfect example.

Will USA be able the turn things around and correct what has been eroding its economy for the last 10+ years? That is the question that nobody has an answer for. Historically, when a large country has gone that far away from rectitude it rarely manages to completely turn things around. It may be more and more rough times ahead, unless.....

"But everything we use, the internet, laser, microchips, the civilian airliners all come from trillions of dollars of private development." enabled by government basic science R&D, financed by initial/ongoing government contracts, and subsided by government tax regulations sounds more like a partnership.

Stan,

I don't know what you mean by 'efficiency'. Do you mean conversion efficiency or capacity factor? Both are more like 15%, the best solar panels today are pushing 20% conversion efficiency. Conversion efficiency is by the way an irrelevant metric. Photosynthesis is 1% efficient. Did that prevent life from covering every corner of this planet?

Whether you generate electricity with 20 panels of 10% or 10 panels of 20% efficiency is irrelevant. Total system cost and annual energy production leads to a certain kWh price. That's what is important.

Whatever you mean, it does not pose a fundamental barrier for a 'significant' contribution. There are various countries now successfully integrating more than 10% variable renewable energy into their grids. How do they do that? 10% qualifies for 'substantial'. Some forms of renewable energy are dispatchable, like hydro, geothermal and biofuels. Think 'energy mix'.

The real howler is that you fell for that 'Freakonomics' solar panel albedo canard. The contribution of solar panels to planet warming through this mechanism is utterly negligible. Usually solar panels have the same or lower albedo than the roof they're placed on! Even if that is not the case (solar panels placed in the desert), the effect is less than the warming through waste heat from the coal plants they're supposed to replace. Here is all the background information you'll need.

Train your skepticism.
_____________________________________________________________

Darius, I'd still like to have a more satisfying answer from you. Stan is not really up to it.

Why do we assume the Government has to pay for it? With proper regulation (tax incentives, benefit shifting) the Government can encourage private investment in one or more types of technology while penalizing others. We do it all the time, but no one wants to acknowledge it.

@Stan,

PV is not currently limited to 10-12%. In fact, you can't get funding for a solar start up today if your plan is to achieve 10-12%. Thin film is struggling if it isn't from First Solar. The silicon shortage is turning into a silicon glut as a lot of new Chinese wafer capacity comes on line. The Chinese PV industry is betting against thin film, and quadrupling down on silicon PV (with conversion efficiencies of ~18%), but of course they are driving costs down very aggressively. Almost 4 Gigawatts of solar thermal has been greenlighted and funded in the California desert.

We've discussed on this site before the spuriousness of your "solar thermal pollution" claims. The net gain of using solar instead of burning fossil fuels puts us way ahead thermally, short term and long term.

Just as we put to bed one fear-based program Dr. Chu suggests yet another. This one centered around fear of China. No. China has huge problems with massive growth and a bullet train will not solve them.

Mr. Chu still hasn't quite grasped energy positioning. The discussion here is not about greenness, or a technology race, it is about energy independence. THAT is what will drive the economic boom in alternative, sustainable energy. With the latest climate collapse in Cancun (why world's most congested tourist destination?) - it is high time to redirect the dialog to issues that matter: ECONOMY, JOBS, SECURITY.

There is now the urgent need for industrial nations to free themselves from oil/fossil energy monopoly. To generate energy from smaller, local sources and back them up with smaller, de-centralized grids.

It is the application of the green slogan: "Think global, act local." Solar in sunbelts, CHP in cooler climates, new nuclear, wind where feasible and sustainable fuels from domestic resources. The goal from all this is economic prosperity and ecologic benefit.

For the U.S., the dollars alone not spent on defending fossil wealth - could finance a huge international fund for green energy development - administered by a citizen corps.

Yesterday's WSJ article by Shelenberger and Nordhaus suggests a NEW direction:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704312504575618972157288244.html

@Anne

BRAVO!

Today, we already have fantastic green energy technological base. We need to deploy in massive scale what technologies we already know, instead of waiting and waiting for a silver bullet or for the day that renewable energy will be cheaper than fossil fuel. That day may not come soon enough, because the prices of fossil fuel is not engraved in stone, but a moving target subjecting to market demand and supply principle. As more renewable energy collectors will be deployed, the prices of fossil energy will come down to be competitve...oil, gas, and coal suppliers will stop mining expensive sites and concentrating on low-cost reserves to remain competitive...and the price of oil, gas and coal will perhaps come down to 1/2 or even 1/3 of the current prices. Today's cost of oil at $70-$90 per barrel does not reflect the cost of mining that oil, just the price that the market will bear. The cost of supplying a barrel of oil is but a small fraction of current market price. On the other hand, the price of solar and wind energy is mostly the cost of material and labor, with little profits.

The more labor-intensive way of obtaining renewable energy in comparison to fossil energy means that more JOBS will be created and retained years after years. For this higher cost, we will have a much cleaner environment and a secure energy future, and more people will have jobs to pay for this energy. With the continued use of fossil energy, fewer people will have jobs, and even if energy cost is cheaper, when people don't have jobs, they won't be able to afford it!

Jobs will continued to be eliminated due to increase in manufacturing and service improvement in productivity. The best way to address this continual job loss is to go more environmental...cleaning up, recycling, more renewable energy deployment...

The different between China and USA is not in technological know-how, but in the rate of deployment of existing green energy technologies. China is rushing ahead with green energy as a big government mandate, while the USA is still waiting for the next break-thru, the next silver bullet, waiting for renewable energy to be cheaper than fossil energy...that day may not come soon enough! That day may come sooner the more experience we will obtain from massive deployment of existing green energy know-how.

@ejj,
Interesting thoughts about the stimulus. I decided to go check and see how much we'd actually spent and what the real cost is. Was surprised to find out that
(1) it is ~$800B
(2) we have spent about ~$328B of it so far
(3) 36% ($288B) of the total $800B is actually tax cuts....not additional spending.

http://projects.propublica.org/tables/stimulus-spending-progress

I think you guys are right about the public being burned out on spending right now and we certainly don't need any more deficit added if we're ever going to get the economy going again.

But I think the $450B we spend every year on foreign oil and the $3 Trillion we're spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are much harder on the economy because they have no input back to our economy.

Cut some money from the war spending/military, or from social welfare/entitlement programs and put it into true energy independence.

"long-range energy policies that have bipartisan support to guide the private sector"

This is where we can leverage to get progress without spending a lot of tax payer dollars. If you can get policies and legislation that does not change every few years, then we can move forward.

Not only is China going to install about 20 GW of wind power this year, China also installed 29 GW of solar hot water and 23 GW of hydro last year.
(So far the US installed 1.7 GW of wind power this year.)

And not only is PV efficiency irrelevant (because solar beams are as opposed to imported fuel actually free and roof area is not limited), PV does also reduce the load on the grid on hot sunny days.

The PV system costs per Watt are the only relevant costs and PV modules can already be produced for $0.64 per Watt whereas new nuclear is at $8 per Watt. 0.1% of the US covered with PV at 12% efficiency covers well over 40% of the US electricity demand and the US has already over 600 GW flexible power plants installed. Needless to say that power can be transmitted efficiently from the center to the coasts and heat energy (hot and cold) can be stored cheaply.

There are two or three ways to reach energy independence, i.e :

1. - Produce more local energy.

2- - Consume less energy.

3- - Do both.

USA is capable of doing both, if the collective will is there. If not, the problem will be around for a few more decades, or until such time as we can no longer afford to buy energy. The latter case may apply.

I vote for "2", consume less. As others suggested above, we need a lot of "low tech" effort, such as: insulate existing buildings.

Many good points globi. Installed solar panels + associated controls and essential storage units still cost $5+/W. Production for the next 20+ years is almost free unless you have to change the 10-15 KWh storage batteries.

The initial very high cost for a small 5.0 KW system producing an average of 25 Kwh/day = $5 x 5000 = $25+K.

Financing the initial installed system at 5% to 6% would cost you about $1250 to $1500 a year.

Your system would produce a maximum of 25 Kwh x 365 = 9125 Kwh/year or about 8000 Kwh/year usable at an average cost of about $0.16875/Kwh.

To the above cost you have to add system maintenance cost (especially changing expensive batteries).

Your total cost will probably be between $0.20 and $0.25. That's about 3 times what we pay for Hydro electricity.

Thirdly, since governments would lose $0.03/Kwh revenues or $240/year in revenue in taxes and dividend, your others taxes would have to be increased by $140/year to compensate.

Your total energy cost would now be between $0.23 and $0.28/Kwh.

I'll stay with clean centralized Hydro for a few more years.

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