Energy: DOE Secretary Steven Chu Talks Up the “Sputnik Moment” for Energy Research

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Readers of this blog will know that one of my pet issues is energy research and innovation. The U.S. invests an obscenely low amount of federal money on basic energy research—perhaps $5 billion a year, not counting one-time stimulus spending, compared to $30 billion and north of $70 billion annually for medicine and defense research. This isn’t to say that simply spending more on basic energy research alone will solve the enormous climate and energy challenges the world is facing. No one seriously makes that argument (except for maybe the Wall Street Journal). But it should be obvious that well-funded energy research is a basic first step to addressing climate change—one that we’ve neglected now for decades, despite all the rhetoric around global warming.

Hopefully that will begin to change, and if it does, Energy Secretary Steven Chu will likely be leading the charge. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist gave a talk at the National Press Club where he made the claim that the U.S. faced a “Sputnik Moment,” on clean energy, and that innovation would be key to U.S. competitiveness in the future. Energy research isn’t just about science—it’s about building a national platform for the industry of the 21st century:

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.

(You can download the PowerPoint presentation Chu would have used for his address here. He wasn’t able to—apparently the Press Club doesn’t support PowerPoint, which seems to say something about the need for innovation in the media.)

The problem is right now the U.S. is playing for second place, if that, with countries like China, Japan and Germany all passing us on energy investment. That needs to change, and one good place to start are the recommendations found in a report released today by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). (You can download the report here.) Here’s what a collection of all the President’s brains are calling for:

Recommendations to Administration and Department of Energy:

2-1 Establish a full interagency Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) led by the Executive Office of the President.

2-2 Develop and implement the DOE component of the full interagency Quadrennial Energy Review promptly.Recommendations to Administration

3-1 Increase annual energy RDD&D funding to about $16B

3-2 Generate $10 of the $16 billion through new revenue streams

3-3 Realign energy subsidies and incentives

3-4 Enhance the Federal Government’s ability to advance energy technology innovation through its purchasing power

3-5 Reestablish the Committee on International Science, Engineering, and Technology within the National Science and Technology Council. Recommendations to Department of Energy

4-1 Direct $12 billion of the $16 billion to Research, Development, and Demonstration(RD&D) funding, with an emphasis on DOE competitive programs

4-2 Exercise authorities to align internal processes and organization with energy objectives

4-3 Establish a DOE training grant program

4-4 Initiate a multidisciplinary social science research program

That $16 billion figure for increased energy research isn’t out of the blue. It happens to be exactly what the American Energy Innovation Council —a new body that includes tech heavy hitters like Bill Gates—has suggested. Even more influential might be the creation of a Quadrennial Energy Review—modeled after the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review—that would provide high-level guidance to the country’s energy policy. For starters, we could actually have a national energy policy, instead of the hodgepodge of subsidies, tax credits and rhetoric about foreign oil that makes up our “energy policy” now. Anything that puts energy on par with defense would be worthwhile—especially if the Defense Department itself, which spends billions on fuel, can get involved directly.

Of course, with deficit-chopping Republicans controlling the House, it’s far from clear exactly where an additional $10 billion would come from, though the PCAST report suggests changing America’s wasteful energy subsidies. Another option, purely theoretical for now, might involve putting a very low tax on carbon that would be channeled directly to energy research, something India is already doing.

But however we find the money, now isn’t the time to pull back from energy research, as Chu took great pains to explain at the Press Club. Quoting former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, Chu said that cutting research now would be like “removing the engine from an overloaded aircraft.” He made it clear that we’re running out of time in the global race for clean energy, but that the U.S. wasn’t defeated yet:

I am hoping that the United States can recognize the economic opportunity that virtually all the western European companies have recognized, that countries in Asia have recognized, and that developing countries have recognized. I am an optimist we will wake up and seize the opportunity…The U.S. still has the greatest innovation engine in the world.

After the shock of Sputnik, the U.S. responded to the challenge, building a national science and engineering program that put a man on the moon, among countless other achievements. The challenge is even bigger now, but the stakes are higher. It’s not just the U.S. that’s at stake. It’s all of us.