Yesterday afternoon in Copenhagen – where the UN climate talks are entering their second week – Professor Chu unveiled what would have been a series of inspiring innovations, had he made this speech 15 years ago. Barely suppressing his excitement, he told us the US has discovered there is great potential for making fridges more efficient, and that the same principle could even be extended to lighting, heating and whole buildings. The Department of Energy is so thrilled by this discovery that it has launched a programme to retrofit homes in the US, on which it will spend $400m a year.
To put this in perspective, four years ago the German government announced it would spend the equivalent of $1.6bn a year on the same job: as a result every house in Germany should be airtight and well insulated by 2025. The US has about 110m households; Germany has roughly 37m, and German homes were more energy-efficient in the first place. This $400m is a drop in the ocean.
Professor Chu went on to explain two amazing new discoveries: a camera which can see how much heat is leaking from your home and a meter which allows you to audit your own energy use. Perhaps thermal imaging cameras and energy monitors seem new and exciting in the US, but on this side of the Atlantic, though their full potential is still a long way from being realised, they’ve been familiar for more than a decade.
He thrilled us with another US innovation, a technology called pumped storage: water can be pumped up a hill when electricity is cheap and released when it’s expensive. The UK started building its first pumped storage plant, Dinorwig, in 1974. Then he told us about a radical system for heating buildings by extracting heat from water: this must have been the one that the Royal Festival Hall used in 1951.
I’m sure these technologies have in fact been deployed for years in parts of the US. My point is that Chu appeared to believe that they represent the cutting edge of both technology and public policy.
The energy secretary explained that the US is now making “a very big investment” in developing and testing new components for wind turbines. The “very big investment” is $70m, which is what the US spends on subsidies and forgoes in tax breaks for fossil fuels every two days.
As if to hammer home the point that the Department of Energy seems to be stuck in a time-warp, and as if to highlight the sad decline of technological innovation in the US, Chu finished his talk with a disquisition on the beauty of the earth as seen by the Apollo astronauts.
What has happened to the great pioneering nation, the economic superpower which once drove innovation everywhere? How did it end up so far behind much smaller economies in boring old Europe? How come, when the rest of the developed world has moved on, it suddenly looks like a relic of the Soviet Union, with filthy, inefficient industries, vast opencast coal mines and cars and appliances which belong in the 1950s?
It can’t all be blamed on George Bush: this technological backwardness pre-dates him. The real problem is the terror of all modern US governments of being seen to interfere in the free market. It’s ironic that the lack of effective regulation in the US has not ensured – as the free market fundamentalists prophesied – that the US came out in front, but that it has been left far behind. Just ask the car manufacturers. The truth, too uncomfortable to be discussed by US officials, is that government regulations are among the main drivers of technological innovation.