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Energy Secretary Steven Chu on the nation's energy future

By Fareed Zakaria
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; A25

During the 2008 campaign -- before the global economic crisis -- Barack Obama said the top three things he wanted to accomplish as president included withdrawing troops from Iraq, reforming health care and putting in place a new energy policy. A health-care bill has passed, and U.S. combat troops are on their way out of Iraq later this year. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and The Post recently discussed the third priority with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Excerpts:

Q: How would you describe Obama's energy policy in a few sentences?

A: We look at all the factors and we say, How can we get to the lowest possible level of carbon as quickly as possible and not only at the lowest cost, but with the greatest possible economic opportunity for the U.S.?

When people look at the fiscal stimulus, some say, "If only they'd taken this opportunity to make major investments in energy, science and infrastructure." Do you believe you are making those investments?

I would say that we are making those investments, though in some areas the effort is just to get something started. The Department of Energy is responsible for the entire energy innovation chain -- from basic science research to applied research, to even beginning to help deploy and scale [new technologies]. You fund for a very short period of time -- two years, three years maximum -- in hopes of opening up something big. So we are saying, "Swing for the fences." Now if you swing for the fences, you may strike out more. But we want a few home runs.

Is the "smart grid" the Interstate Highway System of the 21st century?

The analogy is very apt. It will take several decades to be able to get this to [work], and the cost will be very large. Before I took this job I [participated in] a National Academy study called "America's Energy Future." The total cost, public and private, that I heard was half a trillion dollars or more.

We still overwhelmingly use fossil fuels -- renewables, all told, probably add up to 5 percent [of U.S. energy consumption]. What's a realistic 10-year goal?

We're at about 4 percent now. President Obama made a target to double that by 2012 and we are on target. I expect that to continue. In 10 years' time we hope to have carbon capture and sequestration technologies starting to be deployed. Hopefully we'll have restarted the nuclear industry and we'll be building several nuclear reactors.

What is the blue-sky technology that you are most hopeful about?

I see the cost of [solar] photovoltaics going down and down. Right now it's about $4 per watt for full installation. In 10 years' time, it will certainly be less than $2. If it's $1 or $1.25 then everyone will put it up without subsidy. What else do I see? A new generation of biofuels that are direct substitutes for gasoline -- so, better than ethanol -- using agricultural waste: weed straw, rice straw, corn cobs, wood surplus.

If you look at the top 30 companies in battery, wind and solar technology, there are only four American firms on the list. Do you think that will change? Are we going to become the leader in clean energy?

Well, I certainly hope so. We still have a lot of really high-end, innovative stuff. But you also need to send consistent signals to allow that to be deployed at scale. That's a policy issue -- technology policies, R&D policies, incentives for high-value manufacturing. We are very determined. Can we lead the world in the lowest cost? No. But we can lead the world in high-quality stuff that will create quality jobs for Americans.

Do you think that having a price on carbon is crucial?

I do. I absolutely believe a price on carbon is essential -- that will send a very important long-term signal. [But] if it's five years from now, I think it will be truly tragic, because other countries, notably China, are moving ahead so aggressively. They see this as their economic opportunity to lead in the next industrial revolution.

When you look at the cap-and-trade bill that is floating around Congress, is it strong enough to do what you think needs to be done?

This is my belief: Get it going. The Clean Air Act in the early '90s started slowly. But it got [things] going. The important thing was that the cost ended up being far lower than anybody projected, including the [Environmental Protection Agency], who you might think have a vested interest in trying to lowball the cost. It was four times lower than even the EPA estimate. Once you get it going and start making progress, very clever people start to dream up better solutions. So rather than wait around for a perfect bill that that might be delayed for four or five years, or forever, get it going.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. His e-mail address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.

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