Steven Chu: Solar Should be 4 Times Cheaper by 2020


Photo Credit: Andreas Demmelbauer via Flickr/CC BY

I just got off a conference call with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, in which he discussed the vision for clean energy President Obama put forth in last night's State of the Union address. In that speech, Obama proclaimed that this was America's renewable energy Sputnik moment (a line he took from Chu, actually) -- the juncture where we realize we've fallen far behind in clean energy technology and deployment, and get our act together to defeat the world (or something like that). Chu went one further, saying that it's time for a sun shot, to develop better, cheaper solar technology. The goal is to drive costs down, to the point where solar is 4 times cheaper than it is today by the end of the decade."If there's a cheap source of clean energy," Chu said, "the world will gobble it up." Indeed. Which is why Chu noted that part of Obama's plan was to "increase investment in clean energy by a third" and to create research hubs that would undertake the new "Apollo projects" of today. He also drew attention to the fact that Obama called for the nation to meet a benchmark of putting one million advanced technology cars on the road by 2015.

He emphasized that Obama's goal to have 80% of America powered by clean energy by 2035 was key to sending a "clear market signal to industry." Chu said that while he can't make projections about tomorrow, we can be sure that the price of oil will be higher in the coming years. We also know right now that there are good economic reasons to shift from dirty fuels to clean ones. Clean energy will be a major market force soon, and unsustainable fuels in diminishing supply. In other words, this is the way the tides are turning -- savvy businesses can either join the race or stick with outmoded, increasingly expensive fuels.

All the talk of clean energy is certainly encouraging, but there was still one glaring omission from Obama's State of the Union -- climate change. Both questions I asked the Secretary addressed this topic: Did the administration have any plans to engage the public on climate change? While the clean energy goals are admirable, there's still an absence of climate policy discussion -- does the administration think the public would benefit from a frank discussion of climate change?

The answer was, in so many words -- not at the moment. Chu explained that while he personally understood that the science supporting climate change was growing stronger all the time, there are still those who feel differently. "You and I may feel strongly that there are those risks," he said, but others may not. He noted that "Even developing countries understand the risks," in places like China -- but, essentially, that the focus should be on innovation and economic benefits of clean power here at home. Chu continues to discuss climate change frankly, here and his speeches around the country, but it's largely absent from the rest of the administration's message.

Now, I understand that the omission of the massive, world-changing phenomenon from the public messaging is largely a strategic gambit Obama is taking to help sell clean energy in a hostile political climate -- but I can't help but feel that the administration is missing out on a genuine leadership opportunity. The science is there, after all -- and it spells out the clear urgency for action.

More on Steven Chu:
Steven Chu : China Giving U.S. a Clean Technology "Sputnik Moment ...
Steven Chu Announces $200M+ for Clean Solar and Water Power

Tags: Barack Obama | Clean Energy | Congress | Global Climate Change | United States