11/29/2010 09:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chu: Will America Miss Its "Sputnik Moment" on Energy?

America is at a "Sputnik moment," Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said today, and the government's next moves will determine whether the country leads the global clean-tech race or loses it to China.

"This is the threat that I see," Chu said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. "The U.S. still has the opportunity to lead in a new industrial revolution. It is a way to secure our future prosperity, but I believe our time is running out."

The timing of the speech was no accident. It came as new global climate talks got underway in Mexico and as President Obama prepares to sit down for talks with the new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives.

When the U.S.S.R. launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, it shook the American industrial and military establishment; few knew the Russians were capable of such a feat. Eleven days afterward, President Dwight Eisenhower announced a new commitment to scientific R&D that led to decades of American technological dominance.

Of course, today's announcement was made not by President Obama, but a cabinet secretary. And that just begins to state the differences between 1957 and 2010. Eisenhower faced a clear enemy at an emphatic historical moment. He wasn't saddled with a $13.7 trillion national debt or an opposing political party whose top priority was denying him another term in office.

To fend off likely Republican opposition, Chu steered away from divisive issues like climate change and instead turned his attention to the threat from China. He cited figures from a report about China's rising scientific prowess, designed to scare even the most angry and penny-pinching Tea Party congressman.

In the last 15 years, Chu said, China has gone from 15th place to 5th in international patents and from 14th place to 2nd place in published research articles. Of fifty or so nuclear reactors under construction around the world, thirty are in China. China just surpassed the U.S. with the world's fastest supercomputer, has a 220-mph rail line that is the fastest in the world, and has broken ground on a rail network almost four times larger than the next most developed rail country, France. The U.S. is just sketching out its plan for high-speed rail.

Furthermore, Chu cited figures that eight of the ten global companies with the largest R&D budgets have set up research facilities in China and/or India. And then there's the fact that U.S. tech giant Applied Materials has built the world's largest private research facility -- in China.

Chu remained upbeat that the U.S. could win the energy race by building on investments the Obama adminstration has made so far, notably through the Energy Department's ARPA-E program that gives seed funding to promising energy technologies. ARPA-E has set ambitious targets, like a car battery that can go 500 miles on a single charge, synthesizing fuels from sunlight, and reducing the cost of photovoltaic solar by a factor of four, so it can compete with coal.

"Let's seize this opportunity," Chu said. "We can't afford not to."

David Ferris is the managing editor of the Matter Network.