"Secretary Chu: Sustainability is the new space race"
U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu came to Portland Wednesday and while he was in town to promote engineering education, he also got a chance to talk about what he sees as the next great space race: sustainability. A sense of urgency is needed now as the U.S. competes with the rest of the world — most notably China — for leadership in clean energy.
U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, right, was in town with Intel CEO Paul Otellini to promote engineering education and push for sustainability. Photo by Tyler Brain, Portland State University
By Christina Williams
Sustainable Business Oregon
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U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu came to Portland Wednesday and while he was in town to promote engineering education, he also got a chance to talk about what he sees as the next great space race: sustainability.
Chu, a champion of clean energy, made headlines in December when he called the U.S. out for being at another "Sputnik moment," issuing an urgent call for investment in science and engineering toward the end of transitioning away from carbon-based energy sources.
On Wednesday, he again invoked the 1950s-era satellite and went further to suggest that any engineering student looking for inspiration need look no further than the push for sustainability.
"It's not just clean energy; it's about sustainability," Chu said. "This is something you can think about."
Chu's visit came against the backdrop of Wednesday's announcement that Solyndra, a solar company that benefited mightily from the U.S. Department of Energy's loan guarantee program, declared bankruptcy and laid off 1,100 workers.
Solyndra instantly became a case-in-point for critics of the Obama Administration's backing of clean energy. But with stimulus dollars nearly gone and private industry skittish about making big investments, the question is where the investment will come from to further push U.S. leadership in sustainability and the clean economy.
"I, too, am worried about that," Chu said.
But Chu went on to express confidence that the private sector will step up once the business opportunity becomes clear.
"If we don't do this, we're in trouble," Chu said. "This is a world market. If we're late to it, we will be buying rather than selling."
In response to a question about why the government was shutting down the space program at a time it was also trying to encourage students to study engineering, Chu said that sustainability provides a bigger challenge than going to the moon — again.
"The space program played its role," Chu said. "Here's something that's much bigger."
"A generation of Americans were trained in the aftermath of Sputnik," Chu said.
He added that a similar sense of urgency is needed now as the U.S. competes with the rest of the world — most notably China — for leadership in clean energy.
"We can't take leadership in anything for granted," he said.
Chu also placed an emphasis on manufacturing, discounting the idea — popular during the rise of offshoring — that the U.S. could still lead by keeping design and engineering functions here.
"It's not invent in U.S.A., but manufacture in China," Chu said. "We have to manufacture here."
Deans from four U.S. university engineering schools echoed Chu's sentiment that energy independence is the current generation's Sputnik moment, agreeing that the next Steve Jobs is likely to come from the energy field.
"Energy independence cuts across a huge array of technologies," said Leah Jamieson, dean of Purdue University's College of Engineering.