DOE Regains Its Clean Energy Chops

WASHINGTON — Throughout September, Energy Secretary Steven Chu heard the jeers. They came from Republican legislators who used the Solyndra bankruptcy for political fodder. They came from taxpayers who wanted him to halt the loan guarantee program ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline. And they came from Beltway pundits clamoring for a clean energy scandal. Mostly, he sat silent.

But it was on a rain-soaked first day of October when the clouds finally lifted. Fresh off a flurry of nearly $5 billion in loan guarantees closed the night before, Chu allowed himself to listen to the cheers. They came from hundreds of students from universities across the country in an event that also included some of the best young talent from four continents.

This was the awards ceremony for the fifth Solar Decathlon, an event put on by the Energy Department. Chu had the stage on the National Mall, and he had something to say.

Of course, he was up there to commend the students for another highly successful event that served to educate and inspire those who built the solar-powered homes and the tens of thousands who toured them. He was also there to crown the University of Maryland, winners of the 20-team competition.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Chu was also there to set the record straight. He’s been awfully quiet over the past month in regards to Solyndra and the deal that went bad. But on Saturday, Chu reaffirmed his stance on clean energy, and he signaled how the Obama administration views the challenge.

Consider some of his key points from his speech:

On Asian dominance: “China gave $30 billion in government financing to solar last year. These countries have studied our playbook, and they want to beat us at our own game.”

On American ingenuity: “We invented solar cells, wind turbines and the lithium-ion battery, but we no longer lead in manufacturing. We’re working to recapture the lead.”

On historic achievement: “The question we now face is ‘Where do we go from here?’ In past times of national stress, we took the long view.” Chu spoke about endeavors launched during difficult periods. The groundwork for the first transcontinental railroad, the creation of the National Academy of Sciences and the foundation for land grant schools, which eventually led to places like UC-Berkeley and MIT, all came during the Civil War.

On making an investment: “Did we say then that we could not afford to do these things, that government intervention wasn’t needed, that the free market will solve all our problems?”

On retaking the lead: “It’s not enough for our country to invent clean energy technologies. We have to make them and we have to use them, and they have to be sold around the world.”

This speaks loudly against the growing chorus that American manufacturing can’t compete with the lower-cost options in China. Under the current scenario, it may be true. But that’s largely because the deck has been stacked against America’s favor at exactly the moment when the solar industry and other renewable industries started their march toward achieving scale.

The question now is how does the U.S. catch up? Yes, it’s through innovation and, yes, it’s by fusing solar into the building process as the homes on display at the Solar Decathlon show. More than anything, though, it’s about our federal commitment to making it happen. It’s also about our leaders’ ability to explain that to a public that may be skeptical about new solutions to old problems, and the larger bill that may come at the outset.

This past weekend’s final loan approvals also set up an interesting autumn on Capitol Hill. Chu is scheduled to testify before the House energy committee within the next few weeks. The Congressional Super-Committee will also continue to meet as it searches for ways to drastically cut federal spending. A key Republican member of that group, Rep. Fred Upton, is a strong critic of the Energy Department loan program and has shown scant support of federally backed clean energy programs. We’ll also start to see some of the groundwork being laid for many of these large-scale renewable energy projects that once installed would significantly boost clean power capacity.

Maybe Secretary Chu said it best on Saturday when he told the young crowd — the ones he called the next generation of leaders in the clean energy race — that we’re at a crossroads. Which direction we take will be defined by the resolve of those in charge.

If last Friday and Saturday are any indication, things may bode well.

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Steve Leone has been a journalist for more than 15 years and has worked for news organizations in Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Virginia and California.

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