Secretary of Energy Chu: We Have Taken Our Technological Leadership For Granted

Secretary of Energy and Nobel laureate, Steven Chu, dropped by the Googleplex on Friday for a fireside chat on renewable energy and the state of America’s green tech industry.

Speaking to Urs Hölzle, Google’s SVP of Operations, Chu told a room full of Googlers that although he was largely optimistic about America’s green future, he was frustrated by how much the US had fallen behind and how “we have taken our technological leadership for granted.”

Several times throughout the session, Chu brought up the example of China, a country that has been uber aggressive in funding green initiatives. He rattled off numerous examples of their unbridled ambition, including China’s plan to erect 25 nuclear power plants and the installation of “the highest voltage lines in the world to port renewable energy — they can now port electricity 1900 kilometers, at a 6% loss.”

By comparison, Chu says, America invented many of the world’s green technologies, but has dramatically stumbled behind, as rival countries have caught up, and in some instances, surpassed our efforts. He brought up the case of nuclear reactors, power electronics and solar cells (which were initially invented by Bell Labs, but the US now only has a 6% market share).

Despite the current bleakness, Chu says he has seen a few rays of hope. In the abstract form, he is comforted by the entrepreneurial spirit in green tech. Speaking more specifically, he’s encouraged by the glimmers of progress he sees in the troubled auto industry. Chu says the industry didn’t “just” have a near death experience, “it was a death experience,” but recently Ford passed Toyota’s rating  in initial owner defects and (citing a recent NY times article) has also impressed consumers by apparently building a better product.

“In order to compete you don’t go to Congress and ask for better shelter, you make better stuff,” he said.

Towards the end of his Q&A, Hölzle also asked Chu if he thought Google was doing enough in the arena of green tech.

Chu essentially said yes, applauding Google for its energy initiatives and approaching it with a pragmatic, capitalistic mindset. Although he doesn’t disparage altruism, he says real, sustainable transformation will come from solutions that are also appealing for selfish reasons. “I keep on telling my folks, or anyone that will listen… that saving energy is something you shouldn’t do because it’s a good and right thing…You save energy because you’re going to save money…You can get all the population [with], ‘do this because its good for you.'”

After the fireside chat, Chu was swiftly whisked away to meet with the primary energy leads at Google (in operations, investments, engineering, etc.) for a few closed-door meetings.