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Energy Secretary Chu talks green funding and China in Santa Barbara

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The U.S. needs to do a better job attracting domestic eco-friendly energy projects, but it cannot afford to exclude overseas help, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Friday.

If federal stimulus grants prohibit energy projects from using any foreign-made parts, American companies and workers that rely on the funds could suffer, Chu said at the ECO:nomics conference in Santa Barbara.

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‘There are unintended consequences by just coming out and saying, ‘buy American,’ ‘ Chu said. ‘We have 9 to 10% unemployment. You do not want to stop these projects if two-thirds is American and one-third is foreign.’

But competition abroad is a real danger, he admitted.

Though India is “further behind,” its “leaders realize the danger” of climate change, he said. Europe is moving aggressively to seize what Chu repeatedly called “an economic opportunity” to conserve energy and lower carbon emissions.

In the last few years, the U.S. has lost the lead in high-technology manufacturing to China, Chu said. The U.S. needs a “long-term signal” that assures companies that incentives and regulations will stay stable.

“We can still be the leader in this new industrial revolution,” he said. “But time is running out and the train is leaving the station.”

The conference, put on by the Wall Street Journal, also featured sessions with Walt Disney Co. chief executive Bob Iger and Synthetic Genomics CEO J. Craig Venter.

Bloom Energy Chief Executive KR Sridhar, whose company recently revealed its much-hyped fuel cell technology, was also present.

Chu lamented the red tape and restrictions that often frustrate clean-tech and energy companies attempting to access government resources, and complained that it can often be difficult to fund more “daring” projects.

“There is always government bureaucracy,” he said. “We are trying to cut that down to the bones, but there are statutes.”

Nonetheless, the department awarded two conditional loan guarantees Friday, Chu said: $117 million to Kahukuk Wind Power in Hawaii and $72 million to energy-saving window company Sage Electrochromics in Minnesota.
But as alternative energy products continue feeding the American power pipeline, Chu acknowledged, a transmission bottleneck is forming. Questions involving how power will be delivered to customers and how the network will be updated and priced “are issues we’re struggling with,” he said.

-- Tiffany Hsu

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