Waving the banner of energy revolution: U.S. Secretary of Energy speaks on green technology and climate change
U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate and professor emeritus of Physics at Stanford, returned to campus Monday to speak about the role of clean energy in combating global climate change. A sustainable energy revolution, he said, is not only vital in mitigating climate change, but is a critical step in ensuring U.S. economic competitiveness.
Addressing an audience of students and faculty on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu cited a few words of wisdom from legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."
To that versatile epigram added Chu: "We have to get people in the United States to skate where the world is going to be." He was referring to the challenges facing the United States in mobilizing large-scale clean-energy initiatives in the face of not one, but two behemoths – profound and potentially irreversible climate change, and an increasingly competitive global economy.
Central to Chu's discussion was the need for sweeping action across both public and private sectors to revolutionize, diversify, and propagate green technology – at a pace commensurate with the severity of the impact that human energy consumption has already made on the global ecosystem.
The United States has the opportunity to lead the world in a clean-energy industrial revolution, Steven Chu told the Stanford audience.
The clean-energy revolution
There are great uncertainties as to the outcome awaiting us if we continue business as usual by relying on a fossil-fuel-guzzling energy infrastructure to meet everyday needs, said Chu.
Much of the outcome will depend on the Earth's response to an anticipated temperature increase of five or six degrees centigrade, an effect that won't take hold for another 100 to 150 years, he said. That's when the oceans, a vast storage sink for carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, are expected to reach capacity and begin expelling gases back into the air.
Chu tempered his prediction with a message that veered from the apocalyptic implications of the data looming on the projection screen behind him: There is reason for hope.
"America has the opportunity to lead the world in a new industrial revolution," he said. "It's a new industrial revolution that is to give us the energy we like and desire but in a much cleaner form."
This new legacy of sustainable energy will include generating clean energy through solar and wind power, as China has done, said Chu. No less important is the need to reduce energy consumption through regulation of the commercial sector — by improving the efficiency of electric appliances, raising mileage standards for vehicles, and improving the efficiency of both residential and commercial buildings.
The implications of this energy overhaul are vast, and not just for mitigating climate change, Chu emphasized. He identified clean-energy development as an essential step in decreasing U.S. dependency on foreign oil, jump-starting job growth, and ensuring American economic competitiveness in the future.
Chu cited the Recovery Act, signed into law in February 2009, as a step in the right direction. The measure provides for an $80 billion down payment on developing a clean-energy economy, with $8 billion earmarked for energy-innovation research.
But with China investing $8 billion a month on renewable energy, said Chu, there is more to be done in both the public and private sectors. "If we hold off for another 10 years, we'll fall behind the other countries," he warned.
One thing is certain: "We have to get moving."
Paving the way to a clean-energy future
If the path to a clean-energy future is paved with good intentions, where does the rubber hit the road?
Chu believes the idea will find its bayonets in the commercial sector, where sustainable energy development will prove to be a lucrative and fast-growing industry.
"The U.S. innovation machine is the greatest in the world," said Chu. "When given the right incentives, [it] will respond."
A large part of this response is resting on the legislative velocity of a divided Congress. Chu spoke of the need to pass a comprehensive energy bill that will require the energy sector to revamp its old infrastructure in order to meet more stringent regulations. Such a bill would "liberate financial markets" to loan the money required to make those expensive adjustments, setting a complex process of energy revolution into motion.
Chu highlighted Stanford's role in pioneering research and commercial innovation that led to revolutionary new technologies in the second half of the 20th century. "Stanford University was … highly instrumental in the silicon semiconductor revolution, it was a major player in the biotech revolution, and I think it's poised to be a major player in this green-energy revolution," he said.
To an audience comprised mostly of Stanford students, Chu emphasized the importance of civic engagement and social action in mobilizing the clean-energy revolution.
"Humans are altering the destiny of the planet," he concluded. "It's not too late; we can minimize the alteration, or we can just plow on as usual … and if we plow on as usual … it could be very, very bad."
Chu was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997 for cooling and trapping atoms with laser light. He is the Theodore and Frances Geballe professor of physics and applied physics, emeritus, at Stanford and directed the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory before being appointed by President Obama as the 12th Secretary of Energy.
His lecture was hosted by Stanford's Green Alliance for Innovative Action, a student organization, and co-sponsored by the Woods Institute for the Environment.