The success of China and other countries in clean energy industries represents a new “Sputnik moment” for the United States, Secretary Chu said this week in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He referred to the Soviet Union’s surprise launch, in October 1957, of the first satellite to orbit the Earth.
The United States risks falling behind in state-of-the-art technology, Chu said. He called for greater investment in energy research and development.
“From wind power to nuclear reactors to high-speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead,” Chu said. “America still has the opportunity to lead in a world that will need a new industrial revolution to give us energy we want inexpensively and carbon-free,” he said.
“When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to any one,” Chu said. However, he added, “I think time is running out.”
Chu said the United States must innovate or risk falling far behind in several developing technologies, including:
• High-voltage transmission. China has deployed the world’s first ultra-high-voltage alternating current and direct current lines — including one capable of delivering 6.4 GW 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, Chu said.
• High-speed rail. In 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, Chu said.
• Advanced coal technologies. China is rapidly deploying super critical and ultra-super critical 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. China also is “moving quickly to design and deploy technologies for integrated gasification combined-cycle plants as well as carbon capture and storage,” he said.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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 systems. It is home to three of the world’s top 10 wind turbine manufacturers and five of the top 10 silicon-based Solar PV manufacturers in the world, DOE said.
China’s totalitarian government, of course, doesn’t worry about process or debate in making these investments. By contrast, the U.S. seems gridlocked on moving forward with the urgency Secretary Chu correctly advocates. As he said, there is still time for us to regain the edge in deploying these emerging technologies but all of the stakeholders will need to engage in that problematic search for compromise win-win solutions. And that seems to be a very hard choice for most of them.