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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chu: Yes, We Need a Manhattan Project on Energy

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

The federal government should be investing "tens of billions of dollars" annually to drive a Manhattan Project-style pace of innovation necessary to address the scale of the energy challenge facing the U.S., said Energy Secretary Steven Chu yesterday.

Speaking to a packed auditorium at Stanford University, Chu expanded:

"If you look at the amount of funding for that [the Manhattan Project], and the amount of funding to put a man on the moon, it was a huge spike in funding. I think we do need that. The recovery act actually was the start of still need I think tens of billions of dollars as a minimum per year invested in these technologies and the associated science. The DOE, our base budget for energy research is on a scale of $3 billion...the primary energy industry budget is about $1 trillion, if it's a high tech industry 10-20% is the usable amount of sale that you invest so that's $200 billion, so what we're investing in federal dollar is less than 1% of that or on a scale of 1% of what should be invested."

The Secretary highlighted the steps the Department of Energy was taking to encourage innovation given the limited funds available, including including the launch of the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy and several Energy Innovation Hubs (nicknamed Bell-lablets) based on the storied Bell Labs innovation model.

Unfortunately, when the time came to make recommendation about what the assembled audience could do to help confront the massive climate challenges facing the country, Secretary Chu's suggestions were a swing and a big miss. All he had to offer were two suggestions: "become better informed and then teach others" and put your computer on sleep mode.

Not exactly inspiring words for a room full of eager Stanford students, the nations "best and brightest."

The Secretary wasted a prime opportunity to inspire and rally a room-full of the next generation of young political leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators to tackle the many political, economic, and technological hurdles standing in the way of a clean and prosperous American energy economy.

An energy education panel later in the afternoon, hosted by Breakthrough Senior Advisor, Teryn Norris did offer an inspirational message for students wondering how they could influence one of the greatest challenges of our time -- albeit from slightly less notable sources. The panelists, Director of Stanford's Precourt Institute for Energy Professor Lynn Orr, DOE Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Dr. Henry Kelly, and Cameron Gorguinpour, the Director of Scientists and Engineers for America, all commented on the troubling shortage of engineers and scientists graduating from America's top universities relative to other countries and underscored the critical role that energy education will play in America's ability to compete in the clean energy race.

According to Dr. Kelly:

"There's little doubt we're in a race for our lives to maintain our productivity and competitive edge to keep high tech manufacturing here in the U.S..."

In this context, the panelists also discussed RE-ENERGYSE, Presidents Obama's STEM education funding proposal that Congress slashed from the 2010 budget but which is back on the docket this year.

On the need for energy education funding and its role in the future of American innovation, Dr. Kelly remarked:

"One of the things the U.S. has always been able to do is attract students from all over the world...Continuing to attract them and holding them is one of the critical parts of innovation policy."

While Secretary Chu missed a golden opportunity to inspire both the students in the room and the thousands that will undoubtedly watch the video across the country, the Secretary's consistent emphasis on the urgent need for a large-scale federal investment in America's innovation capacity should send a clear enough message to America's future scientists, engineers, politicians, and entrepreneurs: we need clean cheap energy, now.

"Scientists have come to the service of our country in times of national need," Secretary Chu said. If Congress funds energy innovation at the level Secretary Chu argues is necessary the next generation of innovators will rise to meet the nation's challenges again.

You can view the Secretary Chu's speech in its entirety here.
You can view the "Educating the Energy Generation" panel here.

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