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Chu calls for comeback in U.S. energy tech

Energy Secretary Steven Chu says the U.S. can recapture leadership position in clean-energy technologies with an investment in R&D and long-term policies.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.--Energy Secretary Steven Chu is drawing on U.S. history in research and development to advocate for policies to encourage clean energy technology innovation for the future.

Chu gave the keynote speech at the ARPA-E Summit here today, saying once again that the U.S. is in a race with China, the European Union, and other countries to create energy products expected to grow in demand.

He started out by showing a graph of the rise and fall of oil prices over time, saying that people cannot accurately say where oil prices be in a few years time. Oil recently rose past $100 a barrel, and the U.S. spends about $1 billion a day importing oil.

"What do we do? Do we hope for the best and plan for an economy at $40 a barrel?" he said. "I suggest taking a longer-term, more measured approach to the problem."

Secretary Chu at ARPA-E Summit 2011
Secretary Chu at ARPA-E Summit 2011. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Beyond the question of volatile fossil fuel prices, Chu argued that there is big spike in demand for accessible clean energy around the world. "Our strategy should not be hoping for the best...Let's plan for where the world is going to be," he said.

He listed a number of areas in which China is taking the lead in cleaner technologies. It has, for instance, deployed high-voltage direct-current transmission lines in which only 7 percent of the energy is lost over 1,200 miles. The comparable loss on the U.S. grid would be 80 percent, he said.

Meanwhile, China, France, and Japan also have invested in high-speed rail infrastructure. In finance, the U.S. lags other countries on project financing and public market financing in clean energy, although it leads in venture investing. China has passed the U.S. and other countries in roboticized, high-tech manufacturing as well, he said.

The strategy at the Energy Department for promoting clean energy is to bring down the cost to lower than that of fossil fuels, Chu said. "We believe in certain instances it can be competitive with fossil fuels. Whether it's 10 years from today or 50 years from today is the question," he said. "If we get clean energies cost-competitive with fossil fuels, it's a very different world."

He touted a number of research programs touching many areas, such as building efficiency, efficient air conditioning, and biofuels. In batteries, he said the Argonne National Laboratory made an advance on lithium ion batteries to improve the safety, life, and energy density of batteries. That technology has been licensed by General Motors and is expected to be used in the second generation of the Chevy Volt.

Lithium ion batteries were invented in the U.S., supported by Energy Department research, but the products were commercialized in Japan. Now Japan and Korea dominate the lithium ion battery industry. But as the Argonne battery example shows, technologies can be invented and rapidly commercialized in the U.S, Chu said.

"Just because we lost the lead doesn't mean we can't get it back," he said. "We still have the opportunity to lead the world in clean energy and capture the jobs of the 21st century, but time is running out. It is a race and the train is leaving the station."