“He has faced expectations that were unprecedented for an energy secretary,” said Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There was pressure to spend billions of dollars quickly, and in a department that initially lacked the capacity to do so.”
Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and former head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, seemed an ideal fit for overseeing a technological revolution in the nation’s energy sector. But now Chu is facing heavy criticism after one of the agency’s highest-profile investments, the California-based solar manufacturer Solyndra, defaulted on a $535 million loan in September. The accolades have vanished, and members of Congress are now accusing Chu of trying to do too much, too soon.
Energy secretaries have often hailed from the ranks of Congress. Political acumen was seen as crucial for managing an unwieldy agency composed of a sprawling network of national laboratories. Ambitious secretaries who have tried to focus on energy policy have often seen their attentions diverted elsewhere. Bill Richardson, for instance, spent much of the late 1990s dealing with scandal after Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was accused of spying for China.
Chu, by contrast, came from a nerdy scientific background. In 1997 he won the Nobel Prize for his work on cooling and trapping atoms using lasers. As a professor at Stanford University, his research interests included atomic physics and protein folding.
But Chu also had experience pushing a large organization toward an emphasis on clean energy. He has frequently spoken out about the dangers of global warming and has argued that only game-changing new technologies will enable humanity to avoid a dire climate fate.
It wasn’t until 2004, when he became director of Lawrence Berkeley, that he could put those views into effect. He set about transforming the lab into a leading center for research into biofuels and solar power.
“He was more aggressive at setting the research agenda than most directors have been,” said Robert Birgenau, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley and a longtime colleague of Chu’s.
At the Energy Department, Chu had an even bigger opportunity to reset national energy priorities. But he faced a large and clumsy bureaucracy standing in the way.
The agency’s loan-guarantee program was set up in 2005, part of an energy bill that passed Congress with bipartisan support. But the program took a long time to show results. Bush-era officials said the agency was bogged down by federal hiring guidelines and a sluggish rule-making process.