Energy Secretary Chu, on Power Sources Old and New

Steven Chu parts with his friend Al Gore on ending the use of coal, calling instead for work toward cleaner burning.
Steven Chu parts with his friend Al Gore on ending the use of coal, calling instead for work toward cleaner burning. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009

Steven Chu has likened his arrival in Washington as President Obama's energy secretary to being thrown into the deep end of the pool -- and he boasted this week that he hadn't yet drowned. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist and PhD moved from running a research lab in California to taking over a sprawling federal agency with a $70 billion annual budget and 114,000 employees. "I still have my head above water," he joked in a wide-ranging interview in his office.

His expertise is in developing alternative forms of energy, such as solar and wind power, and he believes -- for starters -- that the country needs to take better advantage of existing technologies. Most important, he says, scientists have come to appreciate that the energy crisis is such a huge economic and environmental problem that many are changing careers to help. "So with more intellectual, top-quality intellectual horsepower going into this, the possibility and the probability of a really transformational breakthrough will be much higher."

Romano: Do people get it? How would you rate our nation's understanding of the energy crisis?

Chu: I think virtually all Americans are uneasy about our growing dependency on imported oil. . . . [But] it's hard for people to actually think deeply about what will be happening 30, 50 years from today [on global warming]. Most societies have not had to grapple with the fact that something 50 years down the road can have some grave consequences.

Romano: We are fast approaching the 100-day mark in the Obama administration. What's the assessment going to be on you?

Chu: I'm particularly proud that we are beginning to move on the loan guarantees [for research]. . . . When I first joined the department, I asked what were the plans for getting these loans approved . . . and in the hands of companies. I was told by mid-2010 -- was the first set of loans. I said, "This is not really acceptable; let's come back with a better plan." They came back with a better plan. They cut that time in half.

Romano: What are people creating through these loans? What kind of research is being done?

Chu: Some of the loans are given to, for example -- a solar . . . company that has a new thin-film technology that they've developed. . . . Other things would be in the form of advanced battery development, that we are looking at several applications for new ideas for making better batteries for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. We are looking at loans to help restart the nuclear industry, which has been dormant for 35 years. To the first several nuclear reactors, there's going to be, again, a learning curve to actually start the industry again.

Romano: Al Gore has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign against coal, against coal manufacturing plants. In fact, he's encouraged civil disobedience in protesting them. What do you think about this?

Chu: The issue here is that if you consider, for example, the countries that have coal, two-thirds of the known coal reserves lie primarily in the United States, China, India and Russia. The United States actually has the most known coal reserves in the world, and over 50 percent of our electricity is generated by coal. Even if the United States turns its back on coal, China and India will not, given the state of affairs. I would prefer to say let's try to develop technologies that can get a large fraction of the carbon dioxide out of coal. Start with 70, 80 percent and build up to over 90 percent, but start now and try to get it out.

Romano: So is it a little unrealistic for Vice President Gore to think that he can end coal production by protesting these plants?

Chu: Well, Al Gore is a friend of mine, and let's just say that -- I'll go back to my original statement that we really have to take the lead, the technological lead, and see if this can get done.

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