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U.S.-China meeting heralds a ‘Sputnik moment’

With Chinese premier Hu Jintao’s arrival in Washington on Wednesday, energy will be a priority point as the two heads of state meet – and may well herald the launch of U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s “Sputnik moment.”

In November 2010, Chu addressed (PDF) a gathering of journalists at the National Press Club, and put forward his vision for U.S.-led innovation in clean technology. Chu described the creation of a new innovation race with the same urgency as President Eisenhower called on the U.S. to get a satellite into orbit after Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.

“When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone – and we certainly won’t start now,” said Secretary Chu. “From wind power to nuclear reactors to high speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead. Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: innovate. As President Obama has said, we should not, cannot, and will not play for second place.”

Though aptly named the ‘Sputnik race’ for the urgency with which the U.S. needs to address its lagging position as a world innovator in the clean energy field, Chu was careful to point out that this innovation requires bilateral agreements between the U.S., China and other developing nations who are currently leading a global clean tech revolution, including India and Brazil.

Past meeting between the U.S. and China on energy matters have ended in deadlock. In the nail-bitingly tense closing meetings at the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, China and the U.S. refused to compromise on who should take the responsibility for the bulk of emissions: China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and an emerging economy, or, the U.S., historically the world’s largest emitter and the largest emitter on a per capita basis. Continued reluctance to address key responsibilities for carbon emissions left the 2010 Climate Change meeting in Cancun, Mexico, also without a binding treaty.

On its home turf, China’s dominance in the global solar industry is causing contention in the U.S. The Obama administration is currently reviewing a complaint (PDF) from the United States Steelworkers union that China has violated free trade rules with its subsidization of renewable energy companies. And the market dominance by Chinese companies in California following the passage of the California Solar Initiative (CSI) in 2007 –- which offers subsidized solar panels to homes and businesses -– is also raising questions about how the current administration plans to marry the two central principles of its energy policy — energy independence and domestic job creation.

Chu’s Soviet-era rhetoric seems to be a thinly-veiled call for the U.S. to step up its clean tech innovation game. And it will be interesting to see how it plays in to the next four days of meetings between the two leaders.

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