Comments on US Energy Secretary Chu’s plans to leave the DOE

Posted on February 7, 2013


The USA’s Secretary of Energy, the Nobel Prizewinner Steven Chu, has decided to leave Washington and return to California. His thoughts about his past four years as Secretary of Energy were given in a letter to the employees of the Department of Energy (read the letter). Before we look a little more closely at that letter I would like to remind you that there were many of us who had great hopes when he was first appointed – at last a person with a scientific background would control the USA’s Department of Energy. Today there are many who are disappointed. There are those who think that the transition to renewable energy was a flop. They think that the money invested in that did not give the expected return, but there are certainly more who think that the investment was much too small. But in a political situation where a Democrat President has the will but the Republicans have the keys to the treasure chest maybe it could not be otherwise.

In his letter of resignation Chu wrote about scientific values, “In the scientific world, people are judged by the content of their ideas. Advances are made with new insights, but the final arbitrators of any point of view are experiments that seek the unbiased truth, not information cherry picked to support a particular point of view. The power of our work is derived from this foundation. This is the approach I’ve brought to the Department of Energy (DoE), where I believe we should be judged not by the money we direct to a particular State or district, company, university or national lab, but by the character of our decisions. The Department of Energy serves the country as a Department of Science, a Department of Innovation, and a Department of Nuclear Security.”

Critics of Steven Chu raise as his greatest fiasco the investment made by the DoE in photovoltaic solar panel manufacturer Solyndra. Immediately after the company was given a loan guarantee of $535 million it went into liquidation and the taxpayers had to wear the cost. Ayesha Rascoe and Nochola Groom wrote the following article for Reuters, ”US Energy Secretary Chu is latest Obama Cabinet departure” and they summarise Secretary of Energy Chu’s tenure with these three points:

* Tenure marred by controversy over loans to failed Solyndra
* Obama to craft new team to address energy, climate
* Physicist not well schooled in Washington rough and tumble

In his letter to the DoE, Chu himself mentions the second point above and it can be summaried with the creation of the “Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy”. ARPA-E was formed in 2009 with an initial budget of $400 million and its structure was revised in 2011. From Wikipedia we learn that ARPA-E’s aim is, “To bring a freshness, excitement, and sense of mission to energy research that will attract the U.S.’s best and brightest minds” On 25 and 27 January ARPA-E will have an “Energy Innovation Summit” in Washington and it is at this conference that Stephen Chu will draw the line under his career as Secretary of Energy. My good friend Hans Rosling is the opening speaker at the conference and sometimes he takes up Peak Oil in his speeches. We will see what he does this time. I will also be at the conference. For further comments on ARPA-E I refer you to Chu’s letter.

Although one of the loan guarantees failed, Steven Chu points to the positives:

– a portfolio of loans and loan guarantees to 33 clean energy and advanced automotive manufacturing projects that will support 60,000 jobs and generate $55 billion in economic investment. This portfolio includes:

– More than a dozen auto manufacturing plants built, reopened, or retooled – from Michigan to California to Tennessee – helping our auto industry compete and produce the next generation of American-made vehicles that will save consumers $1 billion a year on gasoline, including the first all-electric vehicle manufacturing plant in the world in Tennessee.

– The first national scale rooftop solar project that will include commercial buildings in up to 28 states

– The first nuclear power plants in the last three decades

– Wind farms, solar photovoltaic and concentrating solar power plants that will be among the largest in the world.

Some of you will certainly be amazed to hear nuclear energy named but the fact is that Steven Chu supports new investment in nuclear energy in the USA. I will return to this point at a later date.

When one reads the letter, one is amazed at the very strong position he has taken in the climate debate and that Chu notes that China is a leading nation for investment in renewable energy:

“As the President said in his recent Inaugural Address, “some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

“The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has had a significant and likely dominant role in climate change. There is also increasingly compelling evidence that the weather changes we have witnessed during this thirty year time period are due to climate change.

“Virtually all of the other OECD countries, and most developing countries including China, India, Mexico, and Brazil have accepted the judgment of climate scientists.

“Many countries, but most notably China, realize that the development of clean energy technologies presents an incredible economic opportunity in an emerging world market. China now exceeds the U.S. in internal deployment of clean energy and in government investments to further develop the technologies.

“While we cannot accurately predict the course of climate change in the coming decades, the risks we run if we don’t change our course are enormous. Prudent risk management does not equate uncertainty with inaction.”

Of course, I am not pleased with his views on fracking (below), but he probably had little choice in expressing these opinions:

“Our ability to find and extract fossil fuels continues to improve, and economically recoverable reservoirs around the world are likely to keep pace with the rising demand for decades. As the saying goes, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; we transitioned to better solutions.”

Steven Chu longs to return to academic life:

“I would like to return to an academic life of teaching and research, but will still work to advance the missions that we have been working on together for the last four years.”

And in conclusion, he indicates that we have a moral responsibility to the future:

“Ultimately we have a moral responsibility to the most innocent victims of adverse climate change. Those who will suffer the most are the people who are the most innocent: the world’s poorest citizens and those yet to be born. There is an ancient Native American saying: ‘We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’ A few short decades later, we don’t want our children to ask, ‘What were our parents thinking’ Didn’t they care about us?”

I can make the following comment on the third point from the Reuters article, ”US Energy Secretary Chu is latest Obama Cabinet departure”, “Physicist not well schooled in Washington rough and tumble”.

During 40 years I have been a researcher but for 9 years in Trosa I was also a very active as local politician. As I began working on Peak Oil I realized that my political experience was very important and without that I would never have succeeded in advancing the Peak Oil issue. To present Peak Oil and discuss its consequences with politicians at the IPU’s conference in Quebec last year was a high point as I spoke to politicians. If Steven Chu had had more political experience he would probably have advanced his ambitions further. I am convinced that the USA’s next Secretary of Energy will have political experience and I hope that he/she will also have a background in science.

If you like to discuss this article and related articles you can go to Aleklett’s Energy Mix.

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