Journalist Tom Friedman interviewed GE's CEO and Chairman Jeffrey R. Immelt on the last day of the GridWise Global Forum in Washington, D.C.
"We have to have an energy policy. It's stupid what we have today," Immelt said. "Somehow we've allowed the whole discussion of clean energy investing to get wrapped up in green and climate discussions," he said.
According to Immelt, in some ways, the smart grid is controversial. The customer isn't asking for it. It might add more cost at first.
"In 1982, when I was selling plastic to the automotive industry, the IT guy installed Microsoft Outlook [and I didn't ask for it]," Immelt said. He went on to invoke the example of his parents, who don't know what the smart grid is.
"They aren't saying, give me the smart grid," Immelt said. But they are typical American energy consumers who would like to save 10 percent on their energy bill.
Some parts of the aging grid have no basis in the modern world. Immelt said the grid needs to be bigger and smarter.
"A mentor of mine told me: 'To do something, you have to do something,'" Immelt said. "Business is business. At GE, we have the luxury [of R&D funding] and we will do that stuff. But as a country, you have to be good at stuff," he emphasized.
It's important to not lose the momentum we have accumulated. Immelt is a big proponent of building nuclear power plants. He believes it will be good for our country. The U.S. isn't leading in nuclear power, electric vehicles, and coal plants -- yet we have entrepreneurs, ideas, and great companies. (GE recently announced a $200M power grid challenge.)
"The last time we got together, it spawned a chapter in my book that I called, 'If Only We Could Be China for a Day,'" Friedman said.
If you look at China's five-year plan, clean tech is one of the chief initiatives. The State Grid Corporation of China is bigger than all of the utilities in the United States. "You need a big open market, technical innovation, public policy, and a supply chain," Immelt said.
According to Immelt, China remains the most important new market. "The market positions in China are no different than those in Germany 30 years ago," Immelt said. (See Fantastic Program, Not Enough Money.)
"We aren't going fast enough," Immelt opined.
Immelt just returned from Canada, and made the observation that Canada and Australia move faster because they are smaller countries and have fewer political hurdles to navigate.
"We are an American company that I root for, but the rest of the world is moving so fast. I hope there isn't a measure of arrogance there."
He encouraged conference participants to focus on improving an area that most interests them about energy -- productivity, conservation, climate -- because at the end of the day, it all goes down the same road.
Basically, if we don't get our act together, Immelt will take his business to other countries.