Secretary Chu: China's Clean Energy Successes Represent Sputnik Moment for America

November 29, 2010

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu

In a speech at the National Press Club, U.S 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 requires a similar mobilization of America's innovation machine so that we can compete in the global race for the jobs of the future. Secretary Chu outlined efforts underway at the Department to give America's entrepreneurs and manufacturers an edge through investments in clean energy innovation.

"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."

With 17 National Labs and world leading scientific and computing resources, the Department of Energy is on the front lines of America's effort to lead in clean energy innovation. Clean energy technologies developed and deployed in the United States will create American jobs that stay in America.

Secretary Chu detailed a number of promising research efforts now underway, including:

  • Revolutionary Electric Vehicle Batteries—500 Miles on a Single Charge. With the help of Recovery Act funding, Arizona-based Fluidic Energy is working with Arizona State University to develop a new generation of "metal-air" batteries that can store many times more energy than standard lithium-ion batteries. Metal-air batteries contain high energy metals and literally breathe oxygen from the air, giving them the ability to store extreme amounts of energy. 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 innovative approach involves ionic liquids—extremely stable salts in liquid form—using no water at all. 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. A fact sheet on the project, which is part of DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), is available on the ARPA-E Web site.
  • Converting Sunlight Into Usable Fuel. Through a newly established Energy Innovation Hub led by the California Institute of Technology, 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 America's biofuel industry and reducing our dependence on oil.

A New Sputnik Moment

Secretary Chu said 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 our two countries, it also means that America cannot afford to take our scientific leadership for granted. Secretary Chu stressed that our 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:

  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 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 U.S. 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.
  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—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, America must continue to improve the speed and capacity of our advanced supercomputers.

View Secretary Chu's presentation: Is the Energy Race our new “Sputnik” Moment? PDF

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