The United States is at risk of making the “biggest mistake in its entire history” if recent political battles in Washington force the government to drop investment in clean energy, Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday.

Biden warned delegates at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas yesterday: “We are at an inflection point in our history. If we don’t make these investments and set these goals we are going to lose. This negative argument that we hear all the time is not new in America. There are naysayers in the political leadership who say that the government has no role and should not be setting a vision for the future by providing seed money for anything.

“If we shrink from deciding that we are going to lead in the area of alternative energy, renewable energy, then we will be making the biggest mistake this nation has made in its entire history.”

The Vice President said that it was unclear what the Obama administration’s attempts to invigorate the US clean energy economy would yield. But he said that history had repeatedly proved the positive impact of government investment on step changes in technology.

“Had we listened to those [naysayers] in 1843, Congress would never have collaborated with Samuel Morris to build a demonstration telegraph from Washington to Baltimore unleashing a telecommunications revolution.

“If President Lincoln had listened to those voices during the Civil War, he would never have paid private companies $16,000 for every 40 miles of track for the transcontinental railroad.

“And if President Eisenhower had listened to those voices, he would never have invested $25 million in research in an endeavor which invented ARPA net and became the internet.

“If President Kennedy had listened to those voices we would have never have reached the moon and reaped the incredible benefits that flowed from that efforts. I can assure you that President Obama and I aren’t going to listen to those voices.”

Defending Government

Earlier in the day Energy Secretary Steven Chu said it was a myth that the government did not play a prominent role in the development of the greatest technologies developed by the US.

“Government has played an incredibly intimate role in all the technologies that led to prosperity in the United States. And we must not lose sight of that fact.

“US labs created the first transistor. But [the semiconductor] industry would not have got going if it hadn’t been for the US military who were customers of these transistors and integrated circuits. That created the market draw which allowed the US semiconductor industry to be the largest in the world.”

He said that the Obama administration’s $90 billion of investment in the clean energy sector in the form of government loans, loan guarantees, tax incentives and grants “saved an economy that was in free fall.”

Leveraging Federal Dollars

Where federal dollars were committed, private finance soon flowed by a factor of 10, Chu said. In Nevada, solar PV company Amonix received $5.8 million in government manufacturing tax credits but raised a further $12 million in private investment, he said. And the state would receive $560 million of economic benefit from payroll and local taxes.

Chu admitted that the clean energy industry was facing a period of uncertainty now that the Recovery Act was winding down, but said that the US could still recapture lost ground in the global development of clean energy.

“The Recovery Act is coming to an end and the question is, where do we go from here? And we find ourselves in challenging times,” he said. “We have to take actions to reduce the federal deficit. And in these hard times, there are a number of people who argue that we can’t afford to make continued investments in clean energy.

“We’ve had a temporary boost from the Recovery Act with $34 billion invested by the US government US in 2010 compared with $54 billion in China and $41 billion in Germany. When the clean energy loan ends this year and if we do nothing we will fall between Italy and Spain.”

Chu said a drop in the investment rankings could be avoided through investment in R&D and education, a clean energy standard to “create a market pole for clean energy deployment” which requires no investment of tax dollars and the creation of a clean energy development agency to finance projects.

Taking The Long View

“The clean energy standard and clean energy development administration can be a ploughhorse that can create the market pull and provide the investment power to promote the development and deployment of clean energy,” Chu said.

“In times of stress, in the darkest days of the civil war and the cold war, our country took the long view and was better for it.”

Ray Mabus, secretary of the US Navy, said he committed the navy and marine corp to produce at least half of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020 because of strategic and tactical reasons.

“Every time the cost of a barrel of oil goes up by a dollar it costs the US navy $31 million in extra fuel costs,” Mabus said. “When the Libya crisis began the navy faced a fuel bill increase of over $1.5 billion.”

“We import gas and water into Afghanistan more than anything. For every 50 convoys of gas we lose one marine – that is too high a price to pay for fuel.

By the end of the fall, all of the US navy aircraft will be certified to use biofuels mixed with aviation gasoline, he said. The Blue Angels will fly on Labor Day weekend using the mix, he added.

“By using alternative energy and the way we use energy we’re going to continue to do what navy and marine corps has always done – innovate, adapt, and come out on the other side victorious.”

Photo Caption: A general view of a show playing on the Viva Vision LED screen canopy at the Fremont Street Experience July 19, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.