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Rising to the Challenge: Innovating toward our Clean Energy Future

February 9, 2011 - 9:52am


Americans build things. We tinker. We always look to create a better mousetrap. Last week I witnessed that American ingenuity firsthand at a startup outside Boston that is working to dramatically reduce solar panel costs. Typically, silicon wafers for solar panels come from solid blocks. But the company – 1366 Technologies – uses a radically different process, one that creates wafers directly from molten silicon. What’s the result of 1366’s wafer and solar cell advances? Potentially more than 50% cost reduction in installed solar power and twice as much useful silicon for solar panels.

Like 1366, hundreds of other companies around the country are figuring out ways to power our economy with clean energy. And young people want to join these clean energy companies. While in Massachusetts, I went to Harvard University to give a couple talks. The enthusiasm from America’s top talent to spur the clean energy economy was palpable. Students who could have their pick of virtually any job in the country literally told me, “There’s nothing more I’d rather do than work at Energy!”

And we’ll need America’s best and brightest in clean energy careers to win the future. Today, China is angling to become the world’s clean energy leader. The Chinese are on pace to get nearly 20% of their electricity from renewables by 2020. They’ve broken ground on about 25 of the 50 or so nuclear power plants under construction worldwide. They have the highest voltage, lowest loss transmission lines. They have over 5,600 miles of high speed rail. And in a survey of global firms planning to build new R&D facilities, 77% say they’ll build in China or India. This is, as President Obama has said, America's Sputnik moment -- and we must rise to the challenge.

We’ve been here before. We’ve faced dramatic challenges… and we’ve thrived. When the Soviets beat us into space by sending Sputnik into orbit, America responded. President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon within a decade. So we invested in science, math and engineering education. We invested in research and development, spurring countless innovations and new industries. And 8 years later, Neil Armstrong bounded on the moon’s surface.

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama offered America a new challenge: generate 80% of our electricity from clean sources by 2035, or roughly double the clean energy we generate today.

To meet this challenge we’ll need our ingenuity and our tinkerers, our innovators and our businesses. Let’s rise to the moment. Let’s answer Secretary Chu’s call for a SunShot to dramatically decrease the cost of electricity from solar energy. Let’s invest in R&D and in clean energy businesses like 1366 Technologies. Let’s innovate. Let’s create whole new industries. Let’s establish policies that accelerate this transformation. Creating a safe haven for private capital to flow toward clean energy, government-backed loan efforts, clean energy targets and tax policy – they all have a place in our vital clean energy marketplace. And they all put the U.S. in a grand position to win the future.

Cathy Zoi is the acting Under Secretary of Energy.