By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008
The man tapped to be the next secretary of energy, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, recently compared the danger of climate change to a problem with electrical wiring in a house.
Suppose, he said, you had a small electrical fire at home and a structural engineer told you there was a 50 percent chance your house would burn down in the next few years unless you spent $20,000 to fix faulty wiring.
"You can either continue to shop for additional evaluations until you find the one engineer in 1,000 who is willing to give you the answer you want -- 'your family is not in danger' -- or you can change the wiring," Chu said in a presentation in September.
Because of the danger of climate change, he said, the United States and other countries also need to make some urgent repairs. He said governments need to "act quickly" to implement fiscal and regulatory policies to stimulate the deployment of technologies that boost energy efficiency and "minimize" carbon emissions.
Chu's views on climate change would be among the most forceful ever held by a cabinet member. In an interview with The Post last year, he said that the cost of electricity was "anomalously low" in the United States, that a cap-and-trade approach to limiting greenhouse gases "is an absolutely non-partisan issue," and that scientists had come to "realize that the climate is much more sensitive than we thought."
He said people who said they were uncertain whether climate change is being caused by humans were "reminiscent of the dialogue in the 1950s and '60s on tobacco." (At that time, many argued that there was insufficient evidence linking smoking to cancer.)
He put aside the atomic and molecular biophysics research he had been doing as a Stanford University professor to become head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004 and steer it toward projects aimed at slashing the country's emissions of greenhouse gases that hasten climate change. He created the Helios Project, a center that seeks to use solar energy to generate chemical fuel at a low cost.
The laboratory's scientists, including 11 Nobel laureates, have altered yeast and bacteria into organisms that produce gasoline and diesel, improved techniques for converting switchgrass into the sugars needed to produce transportation fuel, and used nanotechnology to improve the efficiency of photovoltaic cells used in solar panels, among other projects.
Chu said in remarks prepared for a recent meeting in Washington that while private companies such as DuPont and Duke Energy were investing in new technology, "most companies are reluctant to invest in research into transformational technologies that may not see commercialization for 10 years, even though such technologies could dramatically change the entire energy landscape."
Chu worked from 1978 to 1987 at AT&T Bell Laboratories, where he did the work that led to his Nobel Prize in 1997. Other scientists at Bell Labs have made scientific breakthroughs leading to advances such as the invention of the transistor, Chu said. But, he added, "the great industrial research institutes such as Bell Labs are now mere shadows of their former glory." (Alcatel-Lucent, the current owner of Bell Labs, said earlier this year that it was cutting back basic science, material physics and semiconductor research.)
Chu, who declined to comment yesterday for this story, said that meant government support for research at universities and the national labs was "our only hope to supply the science required to create transformative energy solutions."
Chu's belief that technology and innovation can help solve energy and climate problems appeals to both environmentalists and to many people in the energy industry, though many environmentalists stress that current technology can go a long way toward slashing energy use.
"His experience seems to dovetail perfectly with the President-elect's commitment to bringing new energy technology to market in a timely fashion," said Scott Segal, a Bracewell and Giuliani partner and director of the coal and power industry-backed Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. "An understanding of the art of the possible in energy technology will be critical to the development of a cost-effective climate change policy."
"He is one of the few guys I know in academia who also has a practical and commercial side," said Terry Tamminen, an energy and environment expert and former chief policy adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). "He recognized that he could do so much more with knowledge other than teach classes."
Chu's nomination, expected to be announced next week, would require Senate confirmation.
The Energy Department is an odd beast. Thirty-six percent of its $25 billion budget is related to national security, dealing with nuclear materials from such devices as decommissioned nuclear weapons and naval reactors. Another 25 percent of its budget goes to environmental management and civilian nuclear waste management.
Another sizable chunk goes to the national laboratories, usually difficult for the central office to manage. In addition to Lawrence Berkeley, they include Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, Savannah River, Los Alamos, Argonne, Brookhaven and National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
"He's run one of these labs. He gets it," said a Democratic source familiar with the Obama transition team's thinking.
The department could become more central to practical energy issues because of President-elect Barack Obama's interest in promoting renewable energy and carbon capture and storage for coal-fired plants. A program to promote electric cars through infrastructure spending could involve the Energy Department. The department also sets appliance standards and other energy efficiency goals.
The son of highly educated Chinese immigrants, Chu was born in St. Louis in 1948. His father studied chemical engineering at MIT, and his mother studied economics there. Chu describes himself as the "academic black sheep" in a family full of graduate degrees and Ivy League graduates. He went to the University of Rochester. There he read a textbook by the famous physicist Richard Feynman and said he found it "mesmerizing and inspirational." He went to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley before taking a job at Bell Labs. There he and another scientist did their prize-winning research, trapping atoms with laser cooling techniques.
Chu has used his post at Lawrence Berkeley to preach the importance of climate issues. He has met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and he was co-chair of a committee that produced a report called "Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future."
In the interview with The Post last year, Chu said that he had confidence in mankind's ability to solve its energy problems. The challenge, he said, was to create things from nature that nature cannot make on its own. People figured out how to use titanium blades in jet engines, an improvement over bird wings, he said. "Maybe we can build a better photosynthesis machine," he said.