Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Sputnik Moment?

Steven Chu recently pointed to how far the U.S. has slipped regarding the development and innovation of renewable and alternative energy by saying that an assessment of what is happening around the world should be a "sputnik moment". In 1957, the U.S. was so startled by the Soviets being able to launch Sputnik into low-Earth orbit that it triggered the space race that led us to the moon.

Can the promise of a trillion dollar clean energy industry serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. to focus on new ways to generate energy? We'll see. There are several factors that may lead to this being more of a "paper Sputnik-moment" than a learning opportunity.

The first is that there is no single incident that would gather the nations attention and focus it on a single event. The news of Sputnik's launch was a media event in the U.S. National pride was wounded because it was a clear and visible pie in the face from a country people did not think was advanced enough to be able to pull it off. I don't see what the contemporary trigger would be to embarrass Americans into taking clean energy seriously.

The second is that a growing percentage of the American public and our elected officials simply don't believe this is a real problem that needs to be solved. If it is perceived that there is no legitimate reason for investing in clean energy and it will be expensive to develop in a time of growing debt and a poor economy nothing will happen. It would be the equivalent of our 1957 selves saying "space is stupid" and in the end buying all that "space-age technology" from the Soviet Union.

In a way, maybe the stage is being set for some sort of Sputnik moment. China has decided to invest enormously in solar energy, Germany and the Dutch are decades ahead of us on wind, and Spain is racing ahead on developing utility grade solar power. Many of the advances are occurring outside of the U.S. because there is simply more investment and emphasis placed on their importance.

Even if an international agreement limiting greenhouse gas emissions doesn't take place here in Cancun (creating an instant market for clean energy) or in the near future, fossil fuels are no panacea:

Coal is dirty. New techniques of mining it in Appalachia like mountaintop removal destroy everything at the surface with the vague hope that things will eventually come back.

Oil is a scarce commodity. Even if we drill baby drill, it is inconceivable that the U.S. will ever be able to produce or conserve enough oil to meet our own needs. Therefore, we have to import it from places that often are unstable, unreliable, or exact a high cost at the same time that foreign debt is threatening to crush the economy.

Natural gas reserves are extensive and promising but some of the most efficient techniques of extracting it like hydraulic fracturing (fracking) lead to widespread groundwater contamination.

In the end, I don't think this is a Sputnik moment. What will it take to get America's attention? What will it take for Americans to realize that nations whose technical abilities are often joked about (such as China) are fully prepared to sell us their technology when we finally decide it is valuable? What will it take for Americans to once again feel that pie in the face and focus? What would Sputnik look like now? BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

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