Sputnik, the first human-made earth-orbiting satellite, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, while the shortsighted U.S., indifferent to space exploration, obsessed over military weaponry.

But, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu said in a talk at the National Press Club Monday, “the United States woke up,” thanks to an inspiring speech by President Eisenhower. In the same way, Secretary Chu sought to wake up the U.S. commitment to a New Energy economy.

Despite the failure to get a comprehensive energy bill from the outgoing Congress and the miniscule likelihood of getting one from the incoming Congress, there is a sense of urgency around restarting the drive for a New Energy economy, Chu explained. “Innovation adds to the wealth of society,” he said, and “leadership, which we still own in innovation, cannot be taken for granted.”

Secretary Chu offered the examples of the U.S. past and China’s rise. “While it did not invent the automobile,” Chu said, the U.S. “took the invention and processed it into something that was not seen in the world before,” attaining in the process “the leadership of automobile manufacturing for three-quarters of a century.” The airplane, the transistor, integrated circuits, optical and satellite communications, GPS, and the internet, Chu said, “all came from the United States, [and] all did wonderful things in terms of wealth creation.”

But today, the Secretary said, U.S. leadership is at risk. “Global high tech exports in our country hit a peak in 1998, capturing about 25 percent of the market, and since that time has been declining steadily and now is about twelve percent to thirteen percent,” he noted. Meanwhile China, from 1995 to 2008, “went from about six percent to twenty percent of the world market of high tech manufactured goods.”

China continues, Chu said, to use government investment to drive its private sector. “They launched a long-term plan to do this,” he added. The result is that “in 2009, for the first time, 51 percent of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.” And China went “from fifteenth place to fifth place in international patents,” Chu said.

While the U.S. ranks 48th worldwide in the quality of its mathematics and science education, Chu went on, two Chinese universities lead all other institutions in terms of students that go on to earn Ph.Ds from American institutions. China leads in advanced transmission systems, high-speed rail, and is on track to lead the U.S. by 2020 in percentage of energy from renewables.

After highlighting the solar photovoltaics achievements of China’s Suntech Power Holdings, Chu paused. “America still has the opportunity to lead in a world that will need a new industrial revolution to give us the energy we want, inexpensively and carbon-free. And it’s a way to secure our future prosperity,” he said, “but I think time is running out.”

Critical for economic competitiveness, Chu said, is federal support for research and development. Referencing A Business Plan for America’s Energy Future, which was compiled by CEOs such as Lockheed-Martin’s Norm Augustine, Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and GE’s Jeff Imelt (among others), the Secretary talked about the amount of money different industries put into R&D. “It’s startling. In the pharmaceuticals space, it’s close to nineteen percent. Aerospace, eleven and one-half percent. Computers and electronics, eight percent. What about energy? 0.03 percent.”

The Secretary discussed ways that the DOE, under President Obama, has worked to drive “very exciting technologies” such as artificial photosynthesis for solar energy, metal oxide batteries to quintuple the capacity of plug-in cars, next generation biofuels, and efficiency improvements in building design.

Using loan guarantees, ARPA-E, innovation hubs and the use of supercomputer design simulations to drive breakthroughs, Chu said, the DOE’s goal is to make such technologies affordable without subsidies. “It’s high risk, high reward. We are not interested in funding incremental work. We’re interested in game-changing work.”

One question, however, looms. “Although the stimulus funding provided a huge down payment of additional R&D, the question is, post-stimulus, are we going to return to this downward trend or are we going to do something about it?” 

In this new Sputnik moment, Chu said, “let’s seize this opportunity. And we really can’t afford not to.”

Controversially, Secretary Chu also talked -- like the research scientist that he was before he came to government -- about advanced nuclear technology and 'clean' coal. It called to mind an observation made recently to Greentech Media by environmentalist Jonathan Weisgall. Noting Republican support for nuclear power and “clean” coal, Weisgall realized “new nuclear is at least a decade away” and carbon capture and sequestration “is AT LEAST a decade away,” so it seemed to Weisgall that advocating for research funding for both technologies might win bipartisan support for renewables while at the same time, “if you’re an environmentalist, I don’t think you give up all that much.”

In his concluding remarks, Secretary Chu pointed out a difference between “this Sputnik event and the Sputnik event of 1957.” Though there is competition between the U.S. and emerging economies like China and India, “there is also the opportunity to collaborate.”

And the opportunity is immense. “In the next two decades,” Secretary Chu said, “China is going to be building a new infrastructure of buildings, cities, roads, transmission lines equivalent to the entire infrastructure of the United States. And 80 percent of what India will have in 2030, doesn’t exist today.” Therefore, he said, “if we collaborate with China and India, we both come out better for it.”