If we drop our investments in clean energy the US is at risk of making the "biggest mistake in its entire history" Vice President Joe Biden warned delegates at the National Clean Energy Summit yesterday. "We are at an inflection point in our history. If we don't make these investments and set these goals we are going to lose."
Naysayers have always said innovation costs too much, is too risky, or isn't the role of government, said Biden. But he argued vigorously against the naysayers with a slew of historical references:
"Had we listened to those [naysayers] in 1843, Congress would never have collaborated with Samuel Morris to build a demonstration telegraph from Washington to Baltimore unleashing a telecommunications revolution.
"If President Lincoln had listened to those voices during the Civil War, he would never have paid private companies $16,000 for every 40 miles of track for the transcontinental railroad.
"And if President Eisenhower had listened to those voices, he would never have invested $25 million in research in an endeavor which invented ARPA net and became the internet.
"If President Kennedy had listened to those voices we would have never have reached the moon and reaped the incredible benefits that flowed from that efforts. I can assure you that President Obama and I aren't going to listen to those voices."
Energy Secretary Steven Chu said it was a myth that the government did not play a prominent role in the development of the greatest technologies developed by the US:
"US labs created the first transistor. But [the semiconductor] industry would not have got going if it hadn't been for the US military who were customers of these transistors and integrated circuits. That created the market draw which allowed the US semiconductor industry to be the largest in the world."
He said that the Obama administration's $90 billion of investment in the clean energy sector in the form of government loans, loan guarantees, tax incentives and grants "saved an economy that was in free fall."
The US needs to take the long view, said Chu:
"The clean energy standard and clean energy development administration can be a ploughhorse that can create the market pull and provide the investment power to promote the development and deployment of clean energy," Chu said.
"In times of stress, in the darkest days of the civil war and the cold war, our country took the long view and was better for it."
Certainly government has an important role in driving clean energy investment. But as we argued in a recent post - clean energy is coming regardless. The question is more about global competition. The US has a long history of being an innovator, and reaping the benefits of first-mover advantage in many technology sectors. But we're falling behind in clean energy investment, and the competition has never been fiercer.