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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Sputnik fallacy redux

In his speech Monday to the National Press Club, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that clean energy represents a new "Sputnik” for the US. In this remake of the space rate, the Red Chinese are playing the role of the USSR.

To quote from the official press release:
A New Sputnik Moment
Secretary Chu said that China's investments in clean energy technologies represent both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States. While China's experience with rapid, large scale deployment of technologies makes it an important global testing ground and creates opportunities for scientific partnerships between our two countries, it also means that America cannot afford to take our scientific leadership for granted. Secretary Chu stressed that our economic competitiveness depends on jump-starting the next round of American innovation in clean energy.
Dr. Chu’s slides even more explicitly make the Sputnik analogy, quoting Dwight Eisenhower.

As CNET reported his remarks:
Chu said that the U.S. needs to fund research in clean-energy technologies in order to stay apace and take advantage of the economic opportunity that cleaner energy technologies represent globally.

"America still has the opportunity to lead in a world that will need a new industrial revolution to give us energy we want inexpensively and carbon free," he said during his presentation, which was Webcast. (Click for PDF of slides.) "I think time is running out."

He said there are risks in the status quo which were detailed in a report called Business Plan for America's Future which was authored by business leaders including Bill Gates, venture capital investor John Doerr, GE CEO Jeff Immelt, and former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.

The report said there are many benefits to moving to a cleaner energy system in the U.S., including public health, protection from climate change, and cleaner air, but none of these are recognized by the free market. Also, the scale of investment required in new energy technologies in beyond the scope of commercial companies, which is why the government should fund research and development.
As I noted six weeks ago, there are two problems with this line of reasoning.

First, the cheap Chinese manufactured goods are helping reduce CO2 outputs even if they take market share from US and German firms: Western leaders have to decide which is more important, saving jobs or saving the planet.

Secondly, the idea that renewable energy policy can be approached like a moonshot is a fallacy that was demolished by three leading innovation economists (who all have strong environmental sympathies). (Official Research Policy article here, working paper here).

Dr. Chu’s answer is to throw more money at federally funded technology development. I realize that Dr. Chu is a scientist who spent years spending DOE R&D money, but the answers are going to found in industry, not federal labs.

Yes, the US is and remains the innovation leader of the PV world. But the problem is not technological innovation, but in business models and manufacturing efficiencies. I don’t know what kind of business advice Chu is getting, although both Doerr and Immelt have shown their priority is to get the government to subsidize their EE/RE bets.

Nothing that Chu suggests will change the fact that China has 4x as many young people and will someday have 4x as many science PhDs as the US. Nor will it change the fact that the cost of capital and land and labor (and energy) is so much cheaper for Chinese manufacturing that none of his proposals would bring back US manufacturing in any significant way.

If the US is not going to be exporting manufactured goods to any significant degree, what can it do? It can try to imitate Germany of a decade ago and sell lots of goods to its domestic market before that market is swamped by imports. Or it can try to export technology, services and other innovations that are not so manufacturing- and cost-sensitive.

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