Monday, November 29, 2010

"Is the Energy Race our new 'Sputnik' moment?"

Energy Secretary Chu Calls for Action

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke today to the National Press Club. His core message: "Federal support for energy R&D is going to be critical to our competitiveness" and "time is running out" to act. His entire address is worth watching, but I abstract a few key ideas here.

Chu noted how the 1957 launch of Sputnik by the USSR galvanized America into action and encouraged a generation of students, including himself, to pursue careers in science and technology. Support for students, and funding support to provide them careers are critical to American innovation, which in turn is essential for our competitiveness.

Investing in innovation creates wealth in addition to all the direct results of that innovation and is key to our prosperity and progress. The US has a long history of innovation that has generated substantial wealth: automobiles, airplanes, the transistor, integrated circuits, satellite and optical communications, GPS, the Internet and others. However, we cannot take innovation leadership for granted and in some ways we are no longer leaders in high tech energy innovation or manufacturing. The competition is real. Chu noted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's comment at last year's World Economic Forum:
We should see scientific and technological innovation as an important pillar and make greater effort to develop new industries of strategic importance. Science and technology is a powerful engine of economic growth... We will make China a country of innovation... We will accelerate the development of a low-carbon economy and green economy so as to gain an advantageous position in the international industrial competition.
Here in the US we are not rising to the challenge. It is "startling" how little we invest as a country in energy R&D: just 0.3% of sales by the private sector and a mere 0.14% of the federal budget. The amount invested peaked in 1979 and has steadily declined since. What will happen after the stimulus funds for energy run out? "The benefits of energy R&D are not recognized or rewarded by the free market" which is why "the government must play a key role in accelerating energy innovation." At Energy, they are designing programs to advance technologies to the point where they are economically competitive without subsidies or other support.

Finally, Chu stated two immediate priorities:
  • Formulate sensible long range policies on energy that have bipartisan support
  • Increase support for energy R&D
The entire event was just more than an hour long:

The event concluded with some good questions. The final question asked, in essence, how Dr. Chu dealt with people in Washington who "just don't get it." Chu answered diplomatically, drawing a parallel to his years as a professor and taking responsibility for finding the right way to educate others. Amusingly, at the start of his talk he provided a more unguarded response. He noted that he was unable to show the PowerPoint deck he had prepared and added that PowerPoint was very good for showing pictures and data. Then he quipped: "I know data is maybe a new concept here in Washington but I think it's a good one."

Given the novelty of paying attention to data by some in Washington, the prospects for a long range energy policy with bipartisan support don't appear as strong as would be desirable.


  1. I think the "public" (at least those that care about the issue) have become disenchanted with the incredible amount of money being wasted on non-solutions. People are becoming more aware of the billions of dollars being wasted on wind and solar farms that are not economically viable.

    The whole "climate" conversation is beginning to look like a manufactured scheme. We need a breakthrough that creates clean, affordable electricity sufficient to beat coal power on price. Until then, people simply see the government and the climate-pimps wasting money we don't have.

    If we really want a SOLUTION, the government should offer PRIZE MONEY for RESULTS instead of having Dr. Chu award grants to politically connected friends. Solar and Wind energy are NOT "alternatives," they are expensive (and unreliable) supplements.

  2. Andrew, I appreciate your taking time to comment; however, your perspective would be more persuasive with numbers and references.

    What "incredible amount of money" is being wasted? How much, and on what exactly? I agree that solar is not yet cost-competitive on its own, but wind is viable today in many places, especially if the true cost of coal is included in the accounting. Coal is about 5c/kWh and on-shore wind 7c/kWh but that doesn't include the costs of airborne mercury, mountain top removal despoiling, or coal ash disasters, to name a few.

    Your remarks about a "manufactured scheme" make no sense to me. The only manufacturing I see on the climate discussion is the promotion of fake controversies and distracting side-shows such as the laughably irrelevent "Climategate." Who are the "climate-pimps"? The only whoring here comes from industry shills and astroturf front groups whose activity is paid for by the incumbent energy interests.

    Climate is not the only reason to pursue renewable energy. It makes sense entirely on the economics and it is decidedly not "wasting money we don't have" as I have written many times, and just recently here.

    Prize money to incentivize a result, like the various X-Prizes, may be a useful impetus. (Although some would argue that it wastes government money to reward what private industry would do anyway in repsonse to a bona fide market demand.)

    I am not aware of Dr. Chu making grants to "politically connected friends." Do you have examples of this?

    Solar and wind, like anything else, are not silver bullets that replace oil. They are, however, part of that solution. The cost is coming down and reliability is actually quite good. (Capacity factor not so much.) The cost of oil and coal will continue to increase; the economics of energy are going to change radically in coming years, and now is the time to anticipate and prepare.