Finding will for energy innovation - The Explorer: Editorials

Finding will for energy innovation

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Posted: Tuesday, September 22, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:35 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

The U.S. has more creative potential than any country in the world.

Though I say that proudly, it's not patriotic bombast; I simply believe it's true. When you combine our historical "Can do!" spirit — we're always seeking new frontiers to explore and believe we can accomplish the impossible — with our amazing diversity — we encompass all the world's cultural and intellectual strengths within our borders — we're second to none in the ideas we can dream up and the genius we can muster to make them work.

Our cutting edge software and technological advances? We take a back seat to no one. Video games, music, television, films? The world can't get enough of our brilliant, inspired flights of fancy.

But somehow, to our great detriment, when it comes to putting big, innovative ideas into practice in our industries or through governmental legislation, the rest of the world passes us by.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about his visit to Applied Materials in Silicon Valley. The company makes microchips for computers. Recently, it has begun manufacturing machines that create state-of-the-art solar panels — yet another example of U.S. ingenuity and inventiveness at work.

Friedman asked where the solar panel factories are located. The answer: "Not a single one is in America. Let's see: five are in Germany, four are in China, one is in Spain, one is in India, one is in Italy, one is in Taiwan and one is even in Abu Dhabi. I suggested a new company motto for Applied Materials's solar business: 'Invented here, sold there.'"

The rest of the world is taking our ideas and creating an energy-independent future while we watch from the sidelines.

I read another story about China's desire to create enough wind farms to supply the majority of its energy needs. Chinese officials are meeting with U.S. scientists and engineers, discussing feasibility – apparently it's very feasible – and implementation.

Do those engineers and scientists get the same warm reception from our energy industry or our state and national governments? If so, I haven't heard. We're too busy listening to the short sighted Luddites and the energy industry lobbyists who glory in making fun of all those silly, tree-hugging liberals and global warming doom-and-gloomers. They think the best way to drive into the future is to peer at the past in their rear view mirror. And they're driving the discussion. They may drive us off a cliff.

At a recent motor show in Frankfurt, Germany, VW showed off a prototype for its E-Up, an electric car that can go from zero to 60 in 11 seconds. Right now it can only travel 70 miles between recharges. Maybe some U.S. inventor will show them a way to triple that.

VW also showed off a hybrid that gets 160 miles per gallon. And Audi's prototype e-tron has a separate motor for each wheel and can go from zero to 60 in 5 seconds, generating a horsepower equivalent rating of 313.

The U.S. has the technological skills and creativity to match all these advances, but we lag behind. And please, no cracks about "Government Motors." The main reason we had to bail out our car manufacturers is this: since the 1990s, they bet the farm on SUVs and gave scant attention to their fuel efficient lines.

There's plenty of time for us to make up ground by putting our native genius to work. After all, sometimes the early adopters find themselves left in the dust by others who wait until the kinks in the new technology are straightened out.

Locally, we're making tentative beginnings. Tucson Electric is planning to put up a sizable solar energy producing plant by 2012. Global Solar Energy and Prism Solar Technologies are working on thin film photovoltaic materials that are less expensive and more efficient than the bulkier panels widely in use.

We have the skills. Somehow, we need to find the will.

Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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