U.S. New ‘Sputnik Moment’: China’s Energy Success

November 30, 2010

The success of China and other countries in developing clean energy initiatives represents a “Sputnik Moment” for the United States, said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a speech at the National Press Club on Nov. 29.

Among the evidence of the Chinese innovation challenge:
  • The nation will achieve 18 percent (and may reach 20 percent) renewable energy by 2020, according to Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission.
  • 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 systems.
  • The country 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.

Despite the challenges, America still has an opportunity to lead. But, time is running out, said Chu.

“When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone—and we certainly won’t start now,” he said. “Federal support of scientific R&D is critical for our economic competitiveness.”

Chu said the Department of Energy has a variety of clean energy research efforts under way, including developing revolutionary electric vehicle batteries that power cars for 500 miles on a single charge and converting sunlight into usable fuel. 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 more energy than standard lithium-ion batteries. And, the California Institute of Technology, through a newly established Energy Innovation Hub, is creating an artificial photosynthesis system that is 10 times more efficient than traditional photosynthesis in converting sunlight into fuel.

APS has produced several studies that address the nation’s energy concerns. The most recent one, Integrating Renewable Energy on the Grid, calls for the development of grid-level storage devices to bring more solar and wind to the grid, among other recommendations. Energy Future: Think Efficiency, examines the scientific and technologicial opportunities and policy actions that can make the U.S. more energy efficient.

Among its recommendations: increased R&D for the development of vehicle batteries and for energy de-humidification and cooling technologies and strategies.

Chu said the nation’s “Sputnik Moment” requires a mobilization of its innovation machine, so that the U.S. can compete for the jobs of the future.

“Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: innovate,” he said.

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.