Steven Chu

U.S. Energy secretary

An excerpt from Washington Post Live’s recent Smart Energy conference.

There’s a huge opportunity before us: a global clean-energy market that’s already worth an estimated $240 billion a year and growing rapidly. In fact, a very reasonable estimate, perhaps even conservative, is that solar photovoltaic systems alone represent a global market today of more than $80 billion a year. Eighty billion dollars is a lot of money. It’s about as much as we spend on beer every year; however, this is a faster-growing market.

The United States built an early lead in the clean-energy race. Solar cells, wind turbines and lithium ion batteries were all invented here. But we’re no longer leading in the manufacture of any these technologies. In keeping with the comparison with beer, in 2009 we spent $7 billion on potato chips. That’s $2 billion more than our federal investments on energy research.

While some people in Washington are debating whether the clean-energy economy is real or whether we should compete, other countries are seizing the opportunity.

Nowhere is this more evident than in China. Last year, China offered roughly $30 billion in governmental financing to solar companies. More than 50 countries around the world offer some type of public financing for clean-energy projects. For example, Germany and Canada operate government-backed clean energy lending programs, and in the last several months, the UK, Australia, and India have announced plans to do the same.

While we’ve made progress, the United States is at crossroads. Many of the clean energy tax incentives are expiring. The 1705 loan program closed on Sept. 30, and we’ve obligated virtually all of our Recovery Act money.

America faces a choice today. Are we going to recognize the opportunity and compete in the clean-energy race, or will we wave the white flag and watch all the jobs go to China, Korea, Germany and other countries in Asia or Europe?

The global competition is fierce, and support for innovative technologies comes with inherent risk. Not every company, not every product will succeed. But there’s no reason to sit on the sidelines. Some of Washington are ready to throw in the towel and write off the clean energy industry. They don’t think America can compete, or they don’t think it’s worth trying. Others think that the best thing we can do is for government to get out of the way and let the free market work.

To those in Washington who say we can’t or shouldn’t compete, I say that’s not who we are.

As we look at what happened in [the] Solyndra [bankruptcy], hindsight is often said to be 20/20. In this case, I think some of the hindsight was 20/10 or even better, clairvoyant. There were things that where the market took an unexpected turn — the cost of solar, modules dropped tremendously in a very short period of time, and in the time we gave the loan — totally unexpected. We were watching all those market conditions. But going forward, I think knowing what we knew at the time doing these things, I think one has to take risks in order to promote innovative manufacturing.