Energy czar sees China surpassing U.S., urges investment

WASHINGTON — The U.S. is losing its edge in energy innovation to China, and it's time to reclaim it for the sake of future economic prosperity, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a speech on Monday.

Chu, a physicist and Nobel laureate, argued that the U.S. government should increase funding for energy research and development. A presidential science commission made the same recommendation Monday in a new report.

"China is doing this," Chu said. "It seems to be working. We should be doing this."

America's long leadership in scientific innovation is at risk, and China is pulling ahead in many ways, Chu said.

He compared the competition to the space race that started in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched a basketball-sized satellite called Sputnik. President Dwight Eisenhower said the Soviet Union had more scientists and engineers and was producing new science graduates at a faster rate. America stepped up space exploration and landed the first man on the moon.

Chu said that losing science and technological leadership to China is a high stakes challenge because "innovation adds to the wealth of society."

Today China manufactures about 20 percent of global high-tech exports, while the U.S. share has fallen to under 15 percent. China has broken ground on 30 nuclear reactors out of about 50 being built worldwide — two in the U.S.

China has the world record in high-speed rail with 5,612 miles under construction. The U.S. has zero.

Other measures on Chu's list include:

  • In 2009, 51 percent of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies. In the past, most originated in the United States. China ranks fifth in international patents.
  • China's most prestigious universities, Peking and Tsinghua, are the two largest suppliers of students who receive PhDs in the United States.
  • Applied Materials, an American company, recently opened the world's largest private solar research and development facility — in China.
  • Chu said he's optimistic that the United States will "wake up and seize the opportunity." Innovation, he said, could "give us the energy we want inexpensively and carbon-free."

    "It's a bipartisan/nonpartisan issue," he said. "It's all about economic prosperity."

    And unlike the Sputnik days, the U.S. stands to gain from collaborating with its competitors and selling to their markets, he said.

    As he often does in speeches, the energy secretary said he has reasons for optimism. Some of those he cited this time:

    • Arizona State University is working on electric vehicles with a 500-mile range on a battery that would cost a third as much as today's batteries. "There's a really good shot at it," Chu said.
    • Other energy projects under way include research on solar energy that would cost one-fourth the installed price today, meaning it would be cheap enough that it wouldn't need subsidies.
    • College students across the country who have concerns about energy and climate change are being drawn to science and technology careers. "This is a good sign," the energy secretary said.
    • He argued that the U.S. should come up with a long-range energy plan that gets bipartisan support and increase government spending on research and development, because business won't be able to put up all the money needed.

      Chu asked the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a group of leading scientists and engineers, to study how the United States could transform its energy system in 10 to 20 years. In a report on Monday, one of its recommendations was an increase in investment in energy research and development from $5 billion to about $16 billion per year. In a press release, it said the money in the short term could come from "small charges on energy production, delivery and/or use."

      Chu's comments come as the federal government is wrestling with a soaring budget deficit and billions being spent to revive the sagging economy. The debate over spending has generated considerable partisanship, making consensus-building over energy investments difficult at best.

      ON THE WEB

      Link to the energy report of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

      free online version of a 2010 update of National Academy of Sciences report on energy and competiveness


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