Video: Steven Chu on why China’s bid for clean energy leadership should be our “Sputnik Moment”


When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone – and we certainly won’t start now.  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.

That’s Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in speech Monday on how China’s bid for world leadership in clean energy should be our “Sputnik moment.”

Here is the PowerPoint presentation that goes with the speech, the source of the image above (h/t Ecocentric).  What follows is a video of the talk and an excerpted post by videographer extraordinaire Peter Sinclair on his Climate Crocks blog:

In an address to the National Press Club, Energy Secretary Steven Chu sounded an alarm about America’s slipping technological leadership in the critical strategic area of renewable energy.

China in particular has made a national commitment to leadership in renewable energy technologies. Unlike the US, China has a Renewable Energy Standard, a goal for a percentage of power to be produced by solar, wind, and other sustainable means.

They expect to exceed the 15 percent goal, and may be producing as much as 20 percent of their energy renewably by 2020, according to Chu.

Renewable energy is, of course, what climate deniers and their fossil fuel funders fear most. For example, Climate Denier Christopher Monckton’s website prominently features a plan to block “insidious” renewable energy standards that would jumpstart US competitiveness.

This kind of organized, paranoid ignorance is good news for China, but bad news for the US, and for the planet in the long run.

Representative Jay Inslee recently made this point emphatically in an interview on Fox News.

See Rep. Inslee attacks anti-innovation GOP: Move to clean energy “or China is going to eat our lunch”

A DOE press release highlighted several crucial technologies where the United States must innovate or risk falling far behind, including:

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 1300 miles away in southwestern China. These lines are more efficient and carry much more power over longer distances than those in the United States.

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.

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 percent 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.

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.

On the positive side, Secretary Chu mentioned a number of key areas of US Research:

“¢ 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. Read the fact sheet on the project (pdf – 264 kb), which is part of DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Converting Sunlight Into Usable Fuel. 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 America’s biofuel industry and reducing our dependence on oil.

— Peter Sinclair

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27 Responses to Video: Steven Chu on why China’s bid for clean energy leadership should be our “Sputnik Moment”

  1. fj3 says:

    Now can you repeat that again. You are saying that the new House Republican climate change witch-hunt panels are going to call Dr. Steven Chu and others of similar stature to explain . . . , uh, what again?

  2. dp says:

    so what if our big investors don’t care anymore where this tech grows up? what happens if they decide to pump their money into chinese ventures because in nervous times they like that ‘controlled’ environment better than the more democratic version? i see in that NYT “shop china, shop” thing an indifference to the geography of job creation.

    what if it’s like “oh yeah i used to be excited about cleantech and, you know, the planet & everything, but asia’s hot so i guess we’re gonna need more icemakers, haha”?

  3. Sasparilla says:

    It would be nice if we lived in a world where the reality of the situation actually seemed to matter (enough), but I don’t think we could have a Sputnik moment in the US these days over anything (short of an actual attack on the US). Don’t know if its the generations (that was the WW2 generation for Sputnik and the moon) or just the general change of US culture.

    At this point it seems as if we’ll be cheering the Chinese on – our investment in Wind generation is already plummeting from a few years ago – the killing of the climate bill (which the President had a direct hand in) drove a stake through the heart of investment growth in renewables in the US (other than California) which was poised to boom with a capital B. The Chinese have already passed us and gone up over the renewable “mountain” ahead while we’ve decided to turn back for the time being. That’s not to say the Chinese will be turning away from coal – they’ll burn as much of that as possible, its just that they’ve reached the limits of the amount of coal they can burn (with their existing infrastructure) and have to have this renewable component for additional growth which is their prime goal over all else it seems.

    We (as a single country) certainly are not going to have a Sputnik moment regarding renewable energy and other things the GOP PR machine is now tying directly to climate change legislation (so it can be destroyed / dismantled). Not a pretty picture we’ve created for ourselves here and its not easy to see us moving in the right direction at the Federal level for a long time.

  4. Roger Wehage says:

    We are in big trouble. Chu was talking way over the heads of republicans and tea partiers, who will soon be running this country. Read their lips, “no more tax increases.” Keeping up with the Chinese will cost big bucks at our inflated rates, and they aren’t going to do it.

  5. Alteredstory says:

    Of course the maddening thing about this situation is that there ISN’T a clear “Sputnik Moment”, or any other single event or moment of revelation. The nature of the problem is such that things like Katrina, or the 2010 superstorm can always be explained away by those who want to, and the gleeful chanting about how China has passed us in terms of their country-wide contribution to CO2 emissions seems to do quite well for the “keeping up with the Joneses” concept.

    Maybe I’m being pessimistic, and I’m certainly spreading this post around, but I just wanted to vent about the irritating nature of this as a topic for rhetoric. Because there isn’t a clear line in the sand, or some other definite, definable THING to target, we have to draw lines where we know they are from research – 350ppm, 400ppm, the trillionth tonne, 2 degrees, and so on, but where it’s just so easy for someone to say “yeah, but you’re just saying that ’cause it supports your argument.”

    ok, I’m done ranting for now, just wanted to get that off my chest after a little too much time arguing in news site comment sections.

  6. Colorado Bob says:

    In the last four months, about 55 centimeters (21.6 inches) of rain has fallen across Venezuela, which is 2.5 times more than normal, according to David Streit, senior lead forecaster at Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland.

  7. paulm says:

    It really is an emergency. Why wont our leaders react.
    A state of extraordinary emergency needs to be declared.

    Global warming is now such a serious threat to mankind that climate change experts are calling for Second World War-style rationing in rich countries to bring down carbon emissions.

    “The Second World War and the concept of rationing is something we need to seriously consider if we are to address the scale of the problem we face,” he said.

  8. mike roddy says:

    Chu is a great Energy Secretary, and let’s hope he gets the message through. Europe has been the leader in deployment. They should boycott equipment made in countries that continue to build coal plants.

  9. Wit's End says:

    This post is peculiarly at odds with the earlier post about China, and the myth of “sustainable” growth. It is phrased in competitive terms with other nations to produce more energy. Our leaders are afraid to tell us the brutal truth – this isn’t going to be easy, the market isn’t going to solve it…like WWII, massive adjustments will be required.

    How pathetic that Chu phrases it as a conflict between nations, when the only possible way human civilization can survive is through unprecedented cooperation, compassion, and a recognition that we are all one species, linked and connected, on one planet with no escape. A huge shift in ideology is required if we are to escape mass extinction – through starvation and warfare over ever scarcer resources, from food to water.

    There was a sign at Copenhagen that said “System Change not Climate Change”.

    The entire paradigm of endless growth – whether through extracting every drop of fossil fuel or competition between nations to build other sources – has reached the endgame. Perpetual growth is inherently unsustainable – and that is why deniers will never buy into the false message that clean energy will replace fossil fuel, if only we invest in it…so they can maintain all their energy gobbling toys. They know that even with every bit of new technology deployed at the most rapid pace, the only way to deflect extreme weather from destroying agricultural land, for just one example, is to radically curtail our use of fuel.

    There will have to be sacrifices, both major and minor, from commuting long distances to work to eliminating idiotic holiday lights – and to make that palatable there has to be a fundamental change in what is regarded as worthwhile…a different measurement of satisfaction, the pursuit of happiness, and freedom. The buy baby buy, waste baby waste, new baby new, more baby more mantras must cease to be attractive, or we are doomed as a species (along with most others).

    When are the most informed and informative climate scientists and activists going to stop the bullshit??

  10. J A Turner says:

    Secretary Chu is going to run smack into an ideological brick wall: free-market fundamentalists don’t want to admit to the existence of issues of such magnitude and urgency that cannot be addressed by letting the market play out in the usual way. The small-government, anti-tax, anti-regulatory folks will be apoplectic when they’re told that the government must invest in research, must regulate, and must lead the way in clean technology innovation. We’re asking the conservatives to question the basic tenets of their ideology.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Curiosity Grows as NASA Sets Extraterrestrial Search Update

  12. Paulm says:

    #11 saved by the alien!

    China is dragging is feet on purpose to get a leg up on the US on the new energy revolution. Within 18 month you can bet they will be ready to sign up to binding targets.
    Can Obama & the GOP not see this?

  13. Ed Hummel says:

    To J A Turner #10 about asking conservatives to question the basic tenets of their ideology; that’s exactly what needs to be done and forcefully, just as FDR did from late December, 1941 through most of the rest of the war. I agree with Gayle at Wit’s End that a World War II style universal program of rationing in conjunction with dedicated production of only necessary items and “clean” technologies and away from frivilous “consumer” goods while weaning us off all fossil fuels as quickly as humanly possible is our only hope. When I give my talks to groups here in central Maine about what we’re facing and why, I always bring up the meeting FDR had with the nation’s big industrialists soon after Pearl Harbor in which he spelled out in no uncertain terms that they production would be immediately shifted to mainly items needed by the war effort and away from comsumer goods. We had rationing throughout the duration of the war. We did have the few usual cheaters, but all in all, the population rallied behind the president and made the necessary sacrifices and the rest is history. It’ll take a similar effort now to deal with climate change and all the other matters that are coming to a head (financial and employment crisis, enviromental degradation and habitat destruction, etc.). I’m waiting for President Obama to declare a state of emergency and do what is necessary according to the powers he has in the constitution to deal with a national emergency the way Roosevelt and Lincoln did. In order to do so, he must forget about re-election and concentrate on the task at hand. If he gets the American people behind him (or at least a majority the way he did in November, 2008), he won’t even have to campaign in 2012 (which is the way it should be , by the way!!!) Otherwise, in a few years as agriculture (the very foundation of civilization) becomes massively degraded by weather related disasters, pest infestations, industrial poisons, and fossil fuel shortages, food conflicts will be breaking out all over the globe leading to a level of chaos never before seen in all of human history. Obama has nothing to lose and everything to gain by such a move. Some say that China has an advantage in such an emergency situation since their form of government allows rule by decree. FDR (and Lincoln to a lesser degree) proved that it can be done here in the USA, too, when necessity so dictates. Lincoln had Fort Sumter and FDR had Pearl Harbor to rally the people and many on Climate Progress have said we need a Pearl Harbor moment to rally the people in the climate crisis. I’m sure that we’ll be having plenty of “Pearl Harbor moments” in the coming year just as we had this past year. All Obama has to do is point them out and enlist Jim Hansen, Richard Alley, Steve Chu, etc. to explain what’s happening and why every time a “moment” occurs. And as soon as the deniers blab their BS, he and the scientists should become even more ubiquitous on TV and the rest of the media as are Rush and Glenn and Sean and all the rest of the idiotic mouth pieces of Roger Ailes and Ruport Murdoch and the Koch brothers, etc. He’s got the bully pulpit and the FCC on his side and it’s about time he started playing rough, especially since his opponents never give any quarter when fighting him. Actually, we’re probabaly more in a desparate situation that mirrors the UK in 1940 when Churchill gave his blood, sweat and toil speech. That’s what’s needed now and those with access to the president need to lean on him to use his enormous talents to lead us and not squander them in the name of bipartisanship or some such non-existant garbage. If that doesn’t happen this year, there really is no hope for civilization as we eat foul ourselves to oblivion like Richard Heinberg’s runaway mushroom.

  14. mike roddy says:

    China has the same problem we do. Their coal barons are as powerful in and out of government as our oil companies. They will need a push, instead of an excuse

  15. Richard Brenne says:

    Chu was saying the right things, but not nearly emphatically enough, if my dozing off a dozen times during his 9 minute speech is any indication.

    Of course I always agree with Mike Roddy (#8) and now another favorite Ed Hummel (#13) about everything except the spelling of Gail at Wit’s End (#9 and another all-time favorite CP commenter).

    There are some additional things to remember about China:

    China has always considered itself the center of the universe, so they’re the Rush Limbaugh of nations. If you graphed the height of the world’s science and technology from a million years ago to now China would be at or the near the top except from about 1500 to about 2000, with Western spikes only exceeding them at the heights of Sumeria, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

    In 1405 Chinese Admiral Zheng He led an expedition of 317 boats up to 416 feet long and holding 500 sailors (28,000 in all) on the first of seven three-year expeditions. They explored all of northern Indian Ocean including all of the Southeast Asia, South Asia, Middle Eastern and Eastern Africa Indian Ocean coastlines, bringing back giraffes, camels, zebras and other exotic animals and trade items. Columbus had superior navigation (thanks to Henry the Navigator’s Portuguese school of navigation) but only three boats, the longest 80 feet in 1492.

    If the Chinese had not had an isolationist emperor in the mid-1400s and if Europe had had anything the Chinese wanted and if they’d discovered the Americas before the Europeans had, the West Coast of North America could have been settled first, Chinese Lewis and Clark-type explorers could’ve gone to the East Coast, and China could’ve benefited first and foremost from the Columbian Exchange that enriched Europe relative to all other continents.

    The point is that when anything from a nation to a college football team has had a dynasty, it’s much easier for them to return to having a dynasty, so China’s ascendance doesn’t surprise me, only the rapidity and scale of it.

    Unfortunately, all of this is happening like CO2, temperatures and sea levels rising, not in one dramatic event like Pearl Harbor and Sputnik.

    Because of Pearl Harbor, Americans on the West Coast could imagine an attack and invasion, and all Americans could imagine Japan and Germany controlling most of the world and eventually America.

    Because of Sputnik, Americans knew the Soviets they imagined as backward could send ICBMs to America before America could send ICBMs to the USSR (and over the Arctic, where people have had icy bms all along).

    Those are immediate, visceral threats. Also, everyone had agreed that Pearl Harbor and Sputnik had happened. Today seemingly half the people would deny it, including those with enough money and power to prevent any appropriate action.

    Our so-called “Democracy” is hopelessly gridlocked and ineffective. Instead of bowing down and worshipping Jefferson and Lincoln as mere icons, maybe we need to heed their warnings that we might need to reinvent our government every so often as circumstances warrant.

    What sort of government do we need now?

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    Perth –

    Perth has had its warmest and sunniest spring on record, topping the season off with a heat wave.

    The mean maximum temperature for the season was 25.3 degrees Celsius, well above the average of 23 and the warmest since records began in 1897.

    “The record was completely and utterly smashed,” Bureau of Meteorology climate information officer John Relf said.

  17. Colorado Bob says:

    ANCHORAGE, Alaska – This month is the wettest November in Anchorage since record-keeping began in 1917.

    Read more:

  18. Colorado Bob says:

    New Zealand –

    Sunday’s scorching heat broke numerous records for the month of November and should linger until at least tomorrow.

    Parts of Waikato, New Plymouth and Central Otago experienced their hottest-ever November weather.

    One weather station in Cromwell recorded 32.3C, an all-time record for this month.

  19. Dappledwater says:

    Colorado Bob – yup it’s hot down here, unusual for this time of year, but more concerning is the lack of rain. Last year where I live (Northern NZ) we had the worst drought in 40 odd years. This spring has been the driest on record in many areas and looks like the drought is shaping up to be worse than last year. Hopefully our metservice is right and we get a wet summer.

  20. Chris Winter says:

    RE: #11 — It’s much ado about something only a scientist would get worked up about, apparently.
    NASA’s Astrobiology News: Arsenic Biochemistry Anyone?
    By Keith Cowing on November 30, 2010 4:03 PM

    Calm down folks. According to Alexis Madrial, a senior editor at The Atantic (and used to write for Wired) posting on Twitter, “I’m sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I’ve seen the Science paper. It’s not that.”

    NASA Watch, always an excellent source in such matters, goes on to say that the excitement is all about the possibility of arsenic performing the same role that phosphorus does in Earthly life.

    A commenter punned, “So basically this is about Arsenic and old lice???” To which I reply, “More like arsenic and old lakes, actually.” I can’t do that over there because there’s trouble with my ID, so I’ll do it here. ;-)

  21. Chris Winter says:

    I think Secretary Chu has justification for calling China’s leap forward in clean energy a “Sputnik moment.” However, as others have observed here, I don’t think our response will be anything like the same. There will be no U.S. clean-energy equivalent of the Apollo program. That’s probably a good thing.

    I think a better model is the microcomputer revolution, in which a group of garage inventors trying all sorts of approaches wound up putting a computer more powerful than anything the Apollo program had on everyone’s desk.

    It takes more manufacturing oomph to produce a wind turbine than a microcomputer, of course. Big corporations will be involved at some point. But I think this will be largely a bottom-up revolution.

  22. Sasparilla says:

    #15 Richard Brenne, very well said.

    Regarding your question of the kind of government we need here in the US, I still think its a democracy – but we need one that has not been hopelessly corrupted and in control by large scale moneyed interests.

    Would the last 20 years have unfolded the way they have in the US if we had only public financing of campaigns (and that was the only money involved)? We don’t know, but my guess is, at least for climate change, things would have been different. Being just a little more responsive, probably, would have been enough (remember we had some Republicans pushing their solutions for most of the decade…seems that time is long gone now).

    There’s a little irony in this as one of President Obama’s primary messages very early in his campaign for President was public financing of campaigns to take the money out of the system. He tossed that over the side without comment, just like climate change, when it wasn’t getting traction.

  23. Leif says:

    Perhaps our “Pearl Harbor” event will be tonight at midnight when the GOP throw another 800,000 Americans under the bus.

  24. John McCormick says:

    Sasparilla @ # 22,

    Lest we forget these immortal words offered by President Obama on January 25, 2010 to Dianne Sawyer:

    “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president,” he told ABC’s “World News” anchor Diane Sawyer in an exclusive interview today. ”

    He is fast becoming neither.

    What and who does he stand for? Capitulation, back sliding, appeasement, getting along? Maybe his administration is being axelroded?

    I voted for him but my interest is fading fast.

    Where did we progressives go wrong in 2008?

    John McCormick

  25. Mike Roddy says:

    Richard and Ed, thought provoking comments, but it led me to this:

    Would the right wing moneyed interests manipulate the Limbaugh crowd into frenzied violence in this scenario? They aren’t far from it now.
    “World government”, “Socialism”, and other buttons make about a third of Americans see red. And these are the ones with guns.

    If Texas governor Perry will threaten secession over tax cuts to the rich or a weak health care bill, how would they react to something that is both serious and necessary? Also, is the military prepared to address the lunatics that would come out of the woodwork? Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of soldiers come from places like Texas and Kentucky.

    That’s not to say that a serious confrontation won’t be necessary, since it’s become obvious that this third of Americans cannot be reasoned with or persuaded. Maybe we need to democratize communications organs, by progressive purchase of a major TV network and expansion serious funding of the Web sources (such as Alternet) that actually tell the truth.

    I agree with both of you that something akin to a state of emergency will become necessary, and we’d better do it soon. Maybe we should borrow the Republican example of their absurd “climate truth squad” by funding a media truth squad, intent on humiating the networks, the Washington Post, and even the radio stations that have failed us so miserably.

  26. Prokaryotes says:

    Joe, it would be great to have a post addressing the cold arctic air intrusion “NAO Phenomena”.

  27. Dr. Steven Chu should be motivated to show the world why China is going to become a super power. That’s the main reason why he is doing this.