Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave a speech at the National Press Club on Monday in which he referred to China’s investments in clean energy as a “Sputnik moment.” “America still has the opportunity to lead in a world that will need essentially a new industrial revolution to give us the energy we want inexpensively but carbon-free,” Chu said. “But I think time is running out,” he warned. “We face a choice today. Are we going to continue America’s innovation leadership or are we going to fall behind?” he asked. His PowerPoint presentation from the speech can be downloaded here (PDF).

Following the speech, Secretary Chu held a conference call with myself and several other bloggers, including Brad Johnson, A. Siegel, and David Roberts, among others. Secretary Chu’s responses to our questions showed that he understands the urgency of ramping up energy innovation in order to maintain U.S. competitiveness.

In response to a question from the Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson, for example, the Secretary lamented his inability to buy a domestically manufactured tankless water heater:

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“In this new very flat world of multinational corporations, virtually all of western Europe, Japan, Korea, China are saying: ‘This is our future.’ If we don’t go in this direction, we will be importing many of the technologies we could be exporting. I just installed an on-demand water heater and there were no American manufacturers. There were Korean, Japanese, European manufacturers. Kind of scary.”

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And as A. Siegel at Get Energy Smart Now noted, Secretary Chu understands the importance of communicating the urgency of investing in clean energy R&D and deployment. At the start of the blogger call, the Secretary explained that “the National Press Club is a tremendous venue but this is a message that I need to keep repeating.”

Secretary Chu’s message wasn’t just doom and gloom, though. He emphasized the fact that it is not too late, and that if we act now, America can regain its competitive edge in energy innovation. He also pointed out some of the progress we’ve made. When I asked a question about renewable energy deployment in the context of the recovery act, Secretary Chu took great pride in telling us that renewable energy was on pace to double by 2012.

I’ll leave you with a few additional quotes of wisdom from Secretary Chu’s call with bloggers Monday.

On thinking long-term: “It’s better to have sustained long term policies than lavish policies that expire after a year or two.”

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On the role of clean energy in the 21st century: “All these other countries have decided that this is what the world is going to need, and I too believe that this is what the world is going to need.”

On seizing the future: “There will always be people who don’t want to go in a new direction, but you can’t go back to 1950 when we were exporting oil. We have to press forward. It’s very important to get that message out. This is how we have always achieved. Not by clutching to the past but by seizing the future.”