By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 – Reinforcing President Obama's State of the Union warning that “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Friday that “This is a race. In the original Sputnik moment, we saw a threat to our national security. In this Sputnik moment, we see a threat not only to our national security and our energy security, but to our economic prosperity.”

In a briefing on the administration's new “Startup America” joint innovation initiative with the private sector, Dr. Chu said biofuels, vehicle electrification and energy efficiency are the three essential ingredients for freeing the U.S. from “our dependency on foreign oil.”

Chu explained that “Corn ethanol is a good start but we say biofuels and biofuels especially made from plants that don't compete with food crops, and agricultural waste and lumber waste, could be a very big deal.” He said recent research advances are moving biofuels made from wheat straw, corn cobs, lumber waste and similar materials closer to becoming competitive with fossil fuels.

Chu warned that Europe, Japan, China and others “are moving aggressively to lead in innovation, but in particular energy innovations and the jobs they create.” He said other countries “see a need for clean energy. They see a worldwide market for clean energy. They see that if they build an infrastructure that's much more energy efficient, that's money saved, money that can be re-channelled into their economies.” Since the U.S. has the world's “best universities and research institutions, the most creative and talented entrepreneurs,” he said, “We can out-compete any country” and that “We're playing to win.” He said what's needed now is “to rev up this machine.”

Chu said the administration has already launched “Innovation Hubs” focused on bioenergy and energy efficient buildings, with more hubs to come. President Obama will visit Pennsylvania Wednesday to highlight the new energy efficiency hub there. To pay for these clean energy efforts, Chu said “President Obama has proposed ending taxpayer subsides for fossil fuels and with the end of those subsidies, you can increase investment in clean energy by one-third.” The clean energy goal: generating 80% of U.S. electricity by 2035 from wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, clean coal with carbon capture and sequestration, and natural gas. That would double the current 40% level.

As one example of how a government-led initiative can create jobs and whole new industries, Chu cited the World War II example of putting together the teams of top scientists and engineers who developed radar. He said the administration is taking a similar approach now, encouraging private industry and saying that as industry develops new clean energy technologies, there will be markets both in the U.S. and overseas.

Chu had an answer to critics charging that rather than “picking winners” and spending taxpayer dollars on government-led programs, the government should simply unleash private industry. He pointed to today's surge in U.S. natural gas production and low natural gas prices thanks to using hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas from shale formations. Chu noted that this new technology was developed by the Department of Energy in the 1970s. He said the many years of DOE reseach ended in 1992 “because Schlumberger, a major oil and gas exploration company, picked it up and so we did exactly what we should have done. We kept researching that until the private sector picked it up and they ran with it.”

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