Is This Our Clean Energy Sputnik Moment?

Steven Chu is dropping the S-bomb. That’s right: The U.S. Energy secretary is invoking Sputnik in describing the challenge the country faces from China’s clean-energy drive.

In the American political-technological lexicon, there are few more powerful words than Sputnik. The first Earth satellite, launched in 1957, conjures both the shocking failure of the United States to keep pace with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and its extraordinary reaction: fully committed, super-charged space and science programs that would get a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

Sputnik, Steve Chu energy speech

image via NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Chu, in a speech to the National Press Club this week, rattled off a long list of measures by which China had made stunning strides in technological innovation in the past decade, but said this was particularly the case on the clean-energy front, where “our Sputnik moment has arrived.” He said the United States must innovate or risk falling behind forever in high-speed power transmission, high-speed rail, advanced coal technologies, nuclear power, alternative energy vehicles, renewable energy and supercomputing.

Chu said the United States can regain its footing by doing what China has been doing—which, ironically, is a strategy the United States had used to gain preeminence, “using government policy to guide the private sector in playing the leading role in research in development.”

Chu wasn’t shy in calling for government investment, but in an era of Republican ascendancy and budget limitations was careful not to suggest a heavy hand, likening the state’s role to “a slight rudder.”

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Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.