Steven Chu

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu spoke at a online video conference Wednesday, addressing the clean energy plans laid out in Tuesday night's State of the Union speech. (Photo from

WASHINGTON—Secretary of Energy Steven Chu on Wednesday began to put detail on President Barack Obama’s plan to use clean energy as an engine of job growth.

“If there’s a cheap source of clean energy,” Chu said, “the world will gobble it up.”

Echoing themes from the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, Chu said in a video conference with reporters that global demand for clean energy solutions would drive job growth in the U.S. – as long as the U.S. can be first to market with ideas that work.

Chu said the U.S. is halfway to Obama’s goal of generating 80 percent of the nation’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. He began to make the administration’s case that Congress needs to get on board with legislation that will not impede progress.

The innovative ‘Sputnik’ moment of our generation and a huge factor in job creation lies largely in creative capabilities in the clean energy sector, the president said on Tuesday night.

“Today’s ‘Sputnik’ moment is that we’re no longer the leader in all areas in innovation … many of them having to do with energy,” Chu said. He cited China, Japan and Korea as being the top competitors in the clean energy market.

Chu said that to win in infrastructure and business, the U.S. will have to step up once again to become the innovator in science and technological fields, where it has been lagging those other nations.

“The people who win in that [clean energy] will certainly have a head up on what you can sell internationally in the market,” said Chu, and will “win the future.”

Elaborating on Obama’s broad sweeps, Chu said that the an important pivot point over the next decade will be American ability to translate innovative research and technology into tangible products that the private sector can manufacture and sell around the world. That is where the vast creation of clean energy jobs would presumably take place.

“Our future jobs, our future wealth will depend on it. And I think we can rise to the challenge,” Chu said.

Chu said the energy sector will create jobs not only for those with a college degree, but for those who can find work in the manufacturing and upkeep sectors.

Increasing the clean energy percentage of U.S. electric use to 80 percent will be a challenge, but Chu said he’s confident that the nation can get there as long as legislation doesn’t inhibit progress.

‘To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen,” Obama said in speech.

“Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest …clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people,” Obama said.

Obama included low-emission coal and nuclear energy as part of the future of clean energy. Democrats have long resisted such a mixed definition of clean energy, but it’s possible that Obama’s more moderate stance will help both parties in Congress come to agreement.

Chu said that sequestering coal in a clean way is not yet economically feasible, but over the next decade it’s a reasonable possibility.

Chu emphasized Wednesday that the next decade of innovation will not occur in jumps from U.S. dependence on fossil fuel, but in small steps taken towards clean energy dependence that pivot on progress in energy storage and distribution.

“When the sun stops shining and when the wind stops blowing you don’t want blackouts. Energy storage will play an important party in that, energy distribution will play an important part of that,” Chu said.

Chu also said that he sees “a very, very bright future in renewables.”

Among the controversial topics lacking from Obama’s speech was a nod towards comprehensive climate change legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency has climate regulations in the work, and there is no doubt that House Republicans, now in the majority, intend to press the issue.

Returning to Obama’s call to the innovative American spirit, Chu recalled past U.S. achievements: “We built the first reactor in the world…we were the leader in nuclear reactors, but now we’re no longer the leaders.”

This was the first in a series of energy matters online in town halls with Chu and other Energy Department officials.