Energy secretary tours UTC, says US lagging in energy research

EAST HARTFORD–The United States is losing the global energy race, and it’s time to get back on the track, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a visit to United Technologies Research Center Friday.

Just as the launch of the Sputnik by the Soviet Union jolted the US into stepping up space exploration, America’s recent sluggishness, relative to the world, in developing new energy sources and more efficient ways to use it must spur this new energy revolution, Chu said.

“Our country’s still the best innovation machine,” Chu said. “If you put policies and allow research at the front end, in instances where we’ve lost the lead, we’ll get it back. In instances where we have the lead, we’ll keep it.”

Thirty years ago, the United States was leading the world in research and development of new energy technologies like solar panels and wind turbines and even more traditional ones like hydropower. But that has not been true for several years now. For example, China is the number one producer of solar panels and offers such generous subsidies that President Obama has declared them unfair. (In January, President Obama signed a bill that included a provision barring the U.S. military from buying solar panels from China.)

As the age of fossil fuels is expected to slowly wind down, and climate change accelerates due to civilization’s growing carbon emissions, Europe and China are boosting production of renewables and more efficient technologies. In the United States, renewables still rely on an ever-changing menu of state incentives that come and go.

Chu was accompanied on the tour of UTRC’s energy efficiency projects by U.S. Reps. John Larson, Chris Murphy and Joe Courtney.

On Thursday President Obama and Chu launched the government’s “energy innovation hub” for the East, the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster. Funded with $129 million in federal money, the cluster will be run by Pennsylvania State University, based at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and rely on research from places including UTRC to start producing and selling energy efficient technologies. It also will train a skilled workforce to build them.

As part of this, United Technologies will receive $10 million over five years from the Department of Energy to give a boost to its ongoing research to develop efficient uses of energy in large buildings.

UTRC will hire 100 more people, Larson told a group of journalists in a lab where the group answered questions from the press after the tour.

“We want to make sure we are funding these efforts that will have a transformational effect on the economy,” he said.

“This is a company, and there are several companies like it, that is taking the long view,” Chu said of United Technologies. “You need to make investments. Today’s Sputnik moment has been happening for years. Other countries are racing ahead. What they see is that anything that has to do with the use of energy will be a huge world need.”

Friday’s tour was mostly closed to the press, and the company and Chu’s staff were careful not to say too much about the proprietary methods they saw. But UTRC did provide a partial list of projects on the tour: energy efficient airplane engines that use 15 percent less fuel; efficient building systems; batteries capable of storing large amounts of energy for later use; and a system to capture waste heat from small power turbines and to use that energy to either heat or cool the building. Craig R. Walker, director of the UTRC energy systems program office, said that the company is working with Wal-Mart on this system.

The tour focused not on renewable power generation-like wind power and fuel cells, both of which UTC is developing in other enterprises-but on systems that take energy produced from either fossil fuel or renewable fuels and use it more efficiently.

Efficiency is key to the long future of energy, worldwide, as fossil sources become scarcer and more difficult to mine, their burning adds to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the altering climate, and all energy becomes ever more expensive.

Chu talked as much about creating jobs as he did about saving energy. “We the administration want to show how serious we are at spurring on innovation,” he said. “This is job creation.” Asked how many and what type of jobs, he said, “It’s not actually measurable now. One dollar of R and D could be $1 million down the road.”

He also said, “Clean energy is a virtue and an incredible business opportunity, so you can be virtuous and you can be very rich.”