Monday, February 23, 2009

'Green' energy needs a big leap

Experts say scientific breakthroughs are the key to making renewable power sources cheap and easy to use.
By Jim Tankersley

February 23, 2009

Reporting from Washington — When Energy Secretary Steven Chu talks about how Americans can break their addiction to oil and coal, he starts with his hi-fi amplifier. It's so old that the on-off light burned out long ago. But inside lies a technology that -- in its day -- was as revolutionary as the changes needed to solve the nation's energy problems.

Radios, telephones and other electronics once depended on fragile vacuum tubes the size of small light bulbs. Then scientists pioneered a smaller, cheaper and more durable replacement called the transistor, opening the way to trans-Atlantic phone calls and a host of other marvels, including Chu's stereo.

Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and other experts say similar scientific breakthroughs are needed to make renewable power sources such as wind, solar and biofuels as cheap and easy to use as costly, environmentally damaging oil and coal. Toward that end, President Obama's stimulus package contains $8 billion for energy research, including $400 million targeted for game-changing technology.

The problem is that over the last three decades, the U.S. has spent many times that much on energy research and development -- with nothing like a transistor to show for it.


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