A group of more than 100 university and college student government presidents submitted a letter (PDF download) last week urging Congress to launch a national program for clean energy science and engineering education. The presidents – representing more than one million American students – warned Congress that advanced energy education is critical for U.S. leadership in the global clean energy industry.

“The United States is rapidly falling behind in the burgeoning clean energy industry – especially in comparison to China – and our educational system and workforce is not prepared to compete,” declared the 107 presidents, including dozens of the country’s top universities. “American students are ready and willing to rise to this national challenge, and we need the federal government to support our education and training.”

The letter, organized by Americans for Energy Leadership and the Associated Students of Stanford University, calls on Congress to support the RE-ENERGYSE (“Regaining our Energy Science & Engineering Edge”) proposal, which would invest tens of millions of dollars annually in energy science and engineering education programs at universities, technical and community colleges, and K-12 schools. It was originally proposed by President Obama in April 2009 and is currently under consideration in Congress as part of the Department of Energy’s 2011 budget request.

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“RE-ENERGYSE represents the nation’s first comprehensive federal program to support clean energy education programs and train thousands of new energy scientists and engineers,” wrote the presidents. “We believe it is a critical step toward creating new energy industries and jobs while regaining American leadership in the global clean energy industry, which promises to be one of the largest new growth sectors.” RE-ENERGYSE was rejected by Congress last year, despite support from dozens of universities and professional associations.

Teryn Norris, Director of Americans for Energy Leadership, said the letter represents an overwhelming demonstration of support from the country’s young leaders. “The next generation of American leaders has delivered a unified message, and members of Congress should listen: the United States is failing to compete in a critical industry, and catching up requires a national strategy for advanced energy education.” Norris pointed to the report he recently co-authored with the Breakthrough Institute and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, “Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant,” as documenting the challenges facing the U.S. clean energy sector.

“Federal investment in advanced energy education, including RE-ENERGYSE, will more than pay for itself,” said David Gobaud, President of the Associated Students of Stanford University for the 2009-2010 academic year. “These are long-term investments in our future. Higher education is a foundation for competitiveness and growth, and the clean-tech industry is one of our generation’s greatest opportunities. We can lead this industry by investing in the next generation of clean energy innovators, and Congress must take action.”

The letter observed that the government has started to address the need for “green-collar” technician training, such as jobs related to building retrofits and renewable energy installation, but the government “has not implemented a higher education strategy to keep the U.S. at the leading edge of energy science, technology, and entrepreneurship.” A recent report by IEEE on the energy workforce concluded, “We need more electrical engineers to solve industry challenges, and … to keep the nation’s electric power reliable, secure, safe, and competitive. Meeting these needs requires long-term investment now.”

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Foreign countries are producing substantially larger portions of scientists, engineers, and researchers that will benefit their clean energy industries. According to the National Science Board, science and engineering make up only about one-third of U.S. bachelor’s degrees, compared to 63 percent in Japan, 53 percent in China, and 51 percent in Singapore. “The U.S. ranks behind other major nations in making the transitions required to educate students for emerging energy trades, research efforts, and other professions to support the future energy technology mix,” states the Department of Energy’s RE-ENERGYSE proposal.

Economic studies have found that federal investment in higher education produces a high rate of return in GDP growth and long-term tax revenue. According to a report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, the return on investment produced by the post-war G.I. Bill totaled above 400 percent over the course of 35 years. Most economists believe that technological innovation drove the majority of U.S. economic growth in the 20th century.

“This letter and RE-ENERGYSE are only the beginning,” said Norris, also a Senior Advisor at Breakthrough Institute and public policy student at Stanford University. “We will continue working with young leaders to develop proposals to advance American energy innovation, including a national education program on par with the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act, and an increase in the federal energy R&D budget to the level of the National Institutes of Health. We look forward to working with members of Congress in the months ahead.”


Additional resources:

RE-ENERGYSE 2-page summary, FY2011 Proposal

President Obama Announces RE-ENERGYSE at National Academy of Sciences

Press Release: Over 100 Groups Urge Congress to Support Obama’s Energy Education Initiative
Breakthrough Institute, 07/22/09

Winning the Clean Energy Race: A New Strategy for American Leadership
Teryn Norris and Devon Swezey, The Huffington Post, Nov. 2009

Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant: Asian Nations Set to Dominate Clean Energy
Race by Out-Investing the United States

Breakthrough Institute and Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, Nov. 2009

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