For energy chief, race is on to find fuel alternatives

Concerns about climate change and the economy have intensified Energy Secretary Steven Chu's focus on new technologies and greater energy efficiency.
Concerns about climate change and the economy have intensified Energy Secretary Steven Chu's focus on new technologies and greater energy efficiency. (Alex Wong)
By Steven Mufson
Sunday, November 14, 2010

It's a stunning fall morning in Washington, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, clad in bike shorts and a snug Stanford University biking shirt, climbs onto his Colnago bicycle and rolls down his leafy street and onto the Capital Crescent Trail. Then it's a 20-minute sprint - breaking the trail's speed limit - to downtown Washington. A Secret Service agent keeps close behind, with the help of a small electric motor. The trees are ablaze across the Potomac as he drops into Georgetown.

Chu winds his way through traffic along the Mall - where one angry motorist leans on the horn - before entering the Energy Department parking garage, right behind his general counsel's red Maserati with the license plate "ENERGY."

Chu's nearly two years as energy secretary have been a sprint of sorts. Until last year, the department spent most of its time and its $26 billion budget as caretaker of the nation's nuclear waste and weapons stockpile. But with rising concerns about climate change and the nation's economy hanging on a precipice, Chu was effectively made the green-energy czar. The stimulus bill gave the agency an extra $36 billion for grants and low-interest loans to jump-start new technologies and greater energy efficiency.

It isn't easy to foster innovation or choose economic winners; many policymakers say government shouldn't even try and that there are better ways to create jobs. But President Obama, egged on by Chu and others, thinks that money can lay the seeds for a more competitive, energy-efficient economy.

Chu - a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and former professor at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley - has been in a hurry to get the stimulus money out the door. The sense of urgency is something he has tried to infuse in others. One day in 2009, after biking to the office, he met with a handful of top officials awaiting their swearing-in ceremony.

"Be nice, but don't be patient," he told them, according to one of the officials.

On the road

Earlier this fall, Chu took one of his many one-day trips to visit Energy Department projects and companies or institutes hoping to land funding.

His first stop: Applied Photovoltaics, which is run from a garagelike space in a commercial building in Pennington, N.J. He sits at a small table with the company's directors. The doughnuts go untouched.

One of the founders, Jeff Szczepanski, dressed in a blue blazer and a wide tie with a giant yellow sun, is the salesman, or "eye candy," as he puts it. The other, Robert Lyndall, who sports a graying beard and ponytail, is the engineer. They are looking for money to manufacture thin-film solar cells that can be embedded into construction materials. It isn't a novel idea, but few companies are producing it.

Chu is curious. He asks about amorphous thin film, substrates, efficiency and degradation. Then he wants to know why architects aren't using the panels as roofing material. The answer is a combination of old habits, lack of experience, price - and availability. The Applied Photovoltaics team thinks the market is there.

Aides say Chu's ability to understand and absorb technical information sets him apart from the previous 11 energy secretaries - a financier, three business executives, an admiral, two governors, a U.S. senator and other politicians.

"When was the last time the boss knew more about what he was being briefed on than the people doing the briefing?" said David Sandalow, assistant secretary for policy and international affairs.

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