Innovate America: Educating the Energy Generation

Opinion by Teryn Norris
Feb. 9, 2010, 12:30 a.m.

Innovate America: Educating the Energy GenerationLast week, the Obama administration introduced a proposal that every college student in the country should know about. It represents the nation’s first comprehensive federal program for clean energy education, and it is a critical step toward regaining American leadership in one of the most important industries of our time.

Over the past two years, a growing numbers of experts have called for federal programs to develop the country’s clean energy workforce. In April 2009, President Obama took up these calls by announcing the first nationwide initiative to inspire and train young Americans “to tackle the single most important challenge of their generation — the need to develop cheap, abundant, clean energy and accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy.”

The proposal, called RE-ENERGYSE (Regaining our Energy Science and Engineering Edge), is part of the administration’s 2011 budget request, which will be considered by Congress in the months ahead. With oversight by the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, it would educate thousands of clean energy scientists and engineers, beginning with $74 million for energy-related programs at universities, community and technical colleges and K-12 schools.

“In order to make the leap in global energy technology leadership, the U.S. must also make the leap in energy education,” states the Department of Energy’s proposal. “This effort will help universities and community colleges develop cutting edge programs, with redesigned and new curricula to produce tens of thousands of other highly skilled U.S. workers who can sustain American excellence in clean energy in industry, trades, academia, the federal government and National Laboratories.”

The U.S. is falling behind in the rapidly growing clean energy industry, and our educational system and workforce is not prepared to compete. The U.S. energy industry expects that half its employees will retire over the next decade, and while Stanford has significant programs in the area, the majority of our colleges and universities lack degree programs focused on energy. Americans students earned only 11 percent of the world’s 4 million science and engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2006, compared to 21 percent in China and 19 percent in the European Union. These degrees are 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.

Fortunately, the U.S. has a history of catching up in strategic industries, and federal investment in education is a core strategy. Fifty years ago, immediately after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the United States mobilized to lead the space race and regain our scientific and technological competitiveness. The National Defense Education Act of 1958, for example, trained thousands of young scientists and engineers who helped put a man on the moon and develop the technologies that catapulted our world into the Information Age.

In 2008, my colleagues and I at the Breakthrough Institute proposed a National Energy Education Act, modeled after this legislation for the clean energy sector. RE-ENERGYSE is a significant step toward such a full-scale program. The federal government has started to address the need for green technician training, but it has not implemented a higher education strategy to keep the U.S. at the leading edge of energy science, technology and innovation. According to the Department of Energy, “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.”

That is why an alliance of student and youth-led groups, including groups at Stanford University, is launching the ReEnergyse Campaign to mobilize and empower young people to advance this proposal through Congress in 2010. In the current political climate, RE-ENERGYSE needs a strong base of support to pass Congress, and as the primary stakeholders in the program, young people can be particularly influential in organizing a coalition of supporters and directly voicing their concerns to members of Congress.

This national campaign, coordinated by Americans for Energy Leadership (, will feature a variety of activities, including a student government presidents sign-on letter organized by Stanford’s David Gobaud, a RE-ENERGYSE lobby day in DC, meetings and public events with members of Congress, op-eds in newspapers and online outlets, research reports and articles about energy education programs, video and photo petitioning and more. Through smart organizing and advocacy, young people can be the driving force to achieve this program.

The global clean energy race represents one of the greatest challenges and opportunities for American leadership in a generation, and now is a critical moment. If we do not immediately implement a national strategy for energy leadership — including smart investments to educate the energy generation — we will miss a historic opportunity to strengthen our economy, create new jobs, improve our energy security and lead the world in confronting climate change. The choice should be clear.

Teryn Norris is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily and Director of Americans for Energy Leadership. To support the campaign, you can reach him at [email protected].

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