“A Sputnik moment” refers back to the time when the former Soviet Union launched the first satellite, the Sputnik 1, and beat the USA into space after the country left it too late to mobilise. The USA’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu said yesterday the USA faces another Sputnik moment in relation to clean energy, including renewables.
“When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone – and we certainly won’t start now,” said Secretary Chu.
Mr. Chu said China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead in the clean energy race and that it’s time for America to “do what we do best: innovate”.
Secretary Chu highlighted several crucial clean energy sectors where the United States must innovate or risk falling far behind – and one is renewable energy. He said China is installing wind power at a faster rate than any nation in the world, and manufactures 40 percent of the world’s solar photovoltaic (PV – solar panel) systems. China hosts three of the world’s top ten wind turbine manufacturers and five of the top ten silicon based PV manufacturers in the world.
Another area where the USA lags is in efficient high voltage electricity transmission. China has implemented the world’s first Ultra High Voltage AC and DC lines – including one capable of delivering 6.4 gigawatts over nearly 1,900 kilometres. Over long distances, traditional power lines suffer significantly from line loss, where electricity is lost mainly through being converted to heat.
However, Secretary Chu also mentioned some of the promising research efforts now underway to bring the USA to the forefront of renewable energy, one being converting sunlight into usable fuel. Scientists and engineers are working to create a system based on plant photosynthesis that can convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into usable fuels such as petrol.
Those efforts are focused on taking what plants do a step further – to create a system of artificial photosynthesis that is ten times more efficient than traditional photosynthesis in converting sunlight into fuel. Mr Chu says this would pave the way for a major expansion of America’s biofuel industry and reducing the nation’s dependence on oil.