Labeling the success of China and other countries in clean energy industries as a new “Sputnik Moment” for the United States, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Monday that America needs to mobilize its innovation machine “so that we can compete in the global race for the jobs of the future.”

The speech came on the same day that the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) called for governmentwide energy technology strategic planning and new investments in energy research, development and deployment.

Chu outlined efforts under way at the Department of Energy (DOE) to give America’s entrepreneurs and manufacturers an edge through investments in clean energy innovation. “When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone — and we certainly won’t start now,” Chu told the audience. “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.”

Across town, PCAST, a group of presidentially appointed experts from academia, nongovernmental organizations and industry, said the United States should craft a governmentwide federal energy policy and update it regularly with strategic quadrennial reviews similar to those produced regularly by the Department of Defense.

The PCAST report released Monday, Accelerating the Pace of Change in Energy Technologies Through an Integrated Federal Energy Policy, provides a road map for the federal role in transforming the U.S. energy system within one to two decades — a transformation that is necessary, it concludes, for reasons of economic competitiveness, environmental stewardship and national security. It calls for significant changes in the way the government coordinates the complex job of fulfilling the nation’s energy needs across individual agencies and programs. It also calls for significantly increasing federal investments in energy-related research and development, and suggests new revenue options that could support the development of more efficient energy technologies.

“The development of clean, secure, safe and affordable sources of energy is clearly one of the preeminent challenges facing the United States and will be central to solving a host of other challenges in the years ahead,” said Ernest Moniz, co-chair of the PCAST Energy Technology Innovation System Working Group. “This report details what the federal government can do to accelerate innovation in the energy sector, encourage scale-up of the best ideas, and lower current barriers to the widespread adoption of winning technologies.”

The report, which builds on the deliberations of a working group consisting of PCAST members and prominent energy experts from the public and private sectors, responds in part to a fall 2009 request by Chu to review the nation’s current approach to energy-related innovation and recommend ways to accelerate the transformation of the U.S. energy system to a more sustainable model. PCAST concluded that a major factor slowing that transformation is the large number of federal policies that affect the development, implementation and use of energy technologies and the lack of coordination among the many departments and agencies with responsibilities under those policies.

The report said a Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) could establish national goals and coordinate actions across agencies. It could also identify the resources needed for the invention, development, and adoption of new energy technology options, and policy options such as incentives and regulations to facilitate these activities. The Executive Office of the President would lead the QER with the DOE providing a secretariat.

The report highlighted the importance of private sector coordination. “The vast majority of the U.S. energy enterprise is in the private sector, and most of [the] big decisions about where to invest in the energy innovation ecosystem are made outside of government,” said Maxine Savitz, co-chair of the PCAST Energy Technology Innovation System Working Group. “Nevertheless, the federal government has many instruments it can use to accelerate the creation and implementation of new energy technologies. We need to strengthen those levers and coordinate them better.”

The report recommends implementing a staged process to provide some elements of a QER during each of the next four years, with the first complete and integrated QER targeted for delivery in early 2015. And it recommends that the DOE prepare and implement a DOE-level version of a QER focused on that agency’s activities, and should do so on a more rapid timeframe to be completed by June 1, 2011. It also recommends organizational and process changes within the agency that would accelerate progress toward energy innovations, including establishment of a new traineeship program to address critical skill areas for its energy science and technology mission.

The PCAST report also found that the federal investment in energy-related research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D) is considerably less than in a number of other industrialized countries as a fraction of gross domestic product. It urges a substantial increase — to about $16 billion per year, from the current annual level of approximately $5 billion — and suggests that the president engage the private sector, consumer representatives, and Congress to explore options to provide about $10 billion of the additional funding through new revenue streams. For the near term, these funds could come from small charges on energy production, delivery, and/or use, the report concludes, while in the intermediate and long term they may come from carbon dioxide emissions pricing.

At the National Press Club, Chu said China’s investments in clean energy technologies represent both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States. While China’s experience with rapid, large-scale deployment of technologies makes it an important global testing ground and creates opportunities for scientific partnerships between the two countries, it also means that America “cannot afford” to take our scientific leadership for granted. Chu stressed that our economic competitiveness depends on jump-starting the next round of American innovation in clean energy. Specifically, he highlighted several crucial technologies, such as high speed rail, high voltage transmission, advanced coal technologies, nuclear power, alternative energy vehicles, renewable energy and supercomputing, where the United States must innovate or risk falling far behind.

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