Voices of Power: Steven Chu

INTERVIEW OF STEVEN CHU, Secretary of Energy

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday April 16, 2009

Chapter 1

MS. ROMANO: Welcome, Dr. Steven Chu, President Obama's new Secretary of Energy, who formerly ran the Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California, which became a hub for alternative energy research. Nice to have you.

SECRETARY CHU: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

MS. ROMANO: You are a scientist. You are a researcher. How has the transition been to Washington, to politics where you're now in part an administrator overseeing 114,000 people, implementing policy?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, it's hard to describe. I was making a transition from being a scientist to heading the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and so this is just more of the same, except it's bigger, but I take each day as it comes.

MS. ROMANO: You had likened it at one point to being thrown into the deep end of a pool?

SECRETARY CHU: I haven't drown yet. I still have my head above water. I think things are going well. The--the issues here--the energy issues are staggering.

MS. ROMANO: How would you rate our nation's understanding of the energy crisis right now?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, there are many aspects of the energy crisis, and the people feel some of these things very well. I think virtually all Americans are uneasy about our growing dependency on imported oil. I think they are very concerned about looking forward as the energy prices over the long term are expected to increase, simply because production of conventional oil will be peaking, and I think there's some concern there.

There is concern with the environment and especially with climate change. When you ask me how do they get it, it's when push comes to shove, how much are they willing to say, "Okay. This is so important that we need to do certain things." I think if all Americans knew in their heart of hearts that some of the risks that we're running in terms of climate change--these things won't be seen for 10 or 20 years, but, certainly by the later half of this century, there could be some very serious consequences.

It's hard for people to actually think deeply about what will be happening 30, 50 years from today or 80 years from today, and that's something that society has not really had to tackle with before.

Most societies have not had to grapple with the fact that something 50 years down the road can have some grave consequences.

MS. ROMANO: So you have to continue to be an educator on this?

SECRETARY CHU: Absolutely, absolutely. But certainly, the dependency on foreign oil, people get immediately, and that's something that we should work towards, relieving ourselves of that growing dependency.

MS. ROMANO: Historically people got it, our dependence on foreign oil, when they found it too expensive to drive their cars. When oil's prices went up, everybody was into conservation.

SECRETARY CHU: I think people realize that as oil and gas become scarcer and there's a higher demand, that there's an incredible jockeying for position, so to speak, of guaranteeing access to these precious energy resources, and so countries do jockey for access, and they enter into long-term contracts. But the dependency is a very scary proposition because, you know, it's something where if it begins to define more and more our geopolitical stance, this is disserving.

And so the only way to back out from this is to become less dependent on foreign oil by--and the first thing we can do about that is simply use less oil when it's--or not waste as much of it, and, for example, in personal vehicles, we can make great strides in--in reducing the amount of oil we use for personal transportation by driving more efficient cars, by car pooling, things of that nature.

MS. ROMANO And do you think people will do that?

SECRETARY CHU: And by actually using less oil, since the United States consumes about 25 percent of the energy of the world, by using less oil---it's a twofer. You--you use less oil, you spend less of your budget on transportation, and you actually keep the price of oil down.

In the meantime, we should be developing alternative sources of transportation fuel, in particular, biofuels that are made from biowastes, lumber wastes, crops grown specifically for energy.

MS. ROMANO: When you took this job, did you appreciate the very public nature of it?

SECRETARY CHU: I didn't fully grasp how much of a fishbowl I live in. As I said, when I became director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, that began to change. It actually began to change in 1997 with the Nobel Prize---you know, I went from being just a scientist doing his own thing to being looked upon as a representative of science, and it--it's just continuing, but, you know, Washington is a very special place.

MS. ROMANO: When you go up to the Hill to lobby for your legislation, have you been surprised at the special interests coming out of the woodwork?

SECRETARY CHU: Yes and no. But that's part of life, and that's part of the job.

MS. ROMANO: So we are fast approaching the 100-day mark. Whether fairly or not, you're going to be judged, the administration is going to be judged. What are they going to say about you?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, I'm hoping that they're going to realize that this is a new Department of Energy that moves in a more timely manner.

Im particularly proud that after a couple of years we are beginning to move on, for example the loan guarantees...I asked what were the plans for getting these loans approved and out the door...I was told that maybe by 2010 that the first set of loans. So I said well sorry this is not acceptable, lets come back with a better plan and they came back with a better plan. They cut that time in half...I think that now weve redesigned it so that the first loans have been approved, gotten out, and the new loans, the ones recently authorized in the economic Recovery Act, were expecting to make commitments on those by May .



MS. ROMANO: Let's talk about coal.


MS. ROMANO: The world is dependent on coal. The environmentalist thinks coal is dirty. Is there such a thing as clean coal?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, there can be such a thing as clean coal.

Currently, the way we use coal, it is not that clean, and so it starts with several things. There are many pollutants that come out of coal. There's--when you burn coal, you generate sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide. You liberate mercury. You create fine particulate matter, and there's a lot of carbon dioxide that's released.

Slowly but surely, we have been cleaning up the coal. The sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal plants in the United States are down considerably, with a cap-and-trade bill. We are working--beginning to work on capturing a lot more of the particulate matter and the mercury. Carbon dioxide is the next thing.

So clean coal would be--mean that you're capturing substantial amounts of all those emissions.

MS. ROMANO: And do we have technology on the horizon to capture the carbon dioxide?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, there are technologies, and they're being piloted. We in the United States are planning on piloting certain technologies. Europe--the European Union is also thinking of somewhere on the order of 10 to 12 projects. China is beginning to plan one.

MS. ROMANO: So how far away are we from seeing this?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, it all depends on the price and, first, the price we're willing to put on carbon, which is--then goes to climate bills, but it all depends on the technical advances one can make.

Currently, since it's not widely deployed, or not really deployed at all, the prices of first generation will be high, but the hope is that as you begin to deploy, as you begin to gather experiences, these prices will come down.

MS. ROMANO: Al Gore has launched a multi-million dollar campaign against coal, against coal manufacturing plants. In fact, he's encouraged--in fact, he's encouraged civil disobedience. What do you think about this?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, so 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, and so, 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.

If we didn't do that and if Europe didn't try to develop those technologies, China and India will continue to build coal plants and continue not to sequester it. So I think it's--it's up to the developed countries, especially, to take a lead in developing the technologies that can capture the carbon.

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

SECRETARY 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. personally think that there's a reasonably good probability we can figure this one out.

MS. ROMANO: What is the administration going to do to make sure cap-and-trade moves forward this year?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, it's going to propose a cap-and-trade. We certainly hope that it will be adopted by Congress this year.

MS. ROMANO: Are you going to get some resistance on that?

SECRETARY CHU: It again goes to how important the country is going to put these long-term environmental concerns out there because it really is a mechanism for beginning to decrease our emissions on carbon.

I think more and more--more and more Americans are getting the fact that--that there are some real consequences in terms of unrestrained carbon emissions. The potential for some serious economic consequences and social consequences tens of years down the road are becoming very real.



MS. ROMANO: You've said that we're looking at perhaps an 80-percent reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 to 2050? How are we going to get that done?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, the first bit, the best and easiest and most profitable part of reducing carbon emissions is to use our energy much more efficiently. That remains for the next several decades, the lowest hanging fruit.

If you think about the way we use energy, for example, in buildings, we know how to build buildings now that can--commercial building, for example, that reduce the amount of energy by 60, 70 percent. In looking at it more deeply, in collaboration with the United Technologies-- Lawrence Berkeley Lab and United Technologies and others feel that you can reduce commercial building energy use by 80 percent, even before you put on solar panels.

MS. ROMANO: With the technology we have now?

SECRETARY CHU: Correct. But it's not widely dispersed. It's not widely believed you can do this in a cost-effective way, and so I think we can develop design tools to help people actually design buildings to do this.

You read stories in Europe where there are in small apartments zero-net energy consumption apartments. There is--you know, body heat keeps a lot of the apartment warm. You can't do this in a big apartment with a few people.

MS. ROMANO: What would be the cost of this, to try to implement something like this?

SECRETARY CHU: We think very efficient homes, residential homes and commercial buildings--the whole intent is to allow us to make these buildings, and they will pay for themselves in 10 years or less.

SECRETARY CHU: That is, the added investments will actually pay for themselves in the lower utility rates, and I think it's only when you--you get to that point, where it really pays for itself, is where you're going to see mass deployment.

MS. ROMANO: You see that as low-hanging fruit, that that's something that can get done.

SECRETARY CHU: Right. It's just like high--high-milage cars. Right now--Europe standard is the equivalent of 41 miles to a gallon. We're pushing towards 35. We know how to make cars that are pretty peppy, that get 40 miles to a gallon or more.

As we develop the batteries needed for plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles, that will allow us to offload the energy, the transportation fuel, and the imported oil, and it gives us a broader base, a possibility of--of developing electricity by, for example, more renewables that can be used to charge the batteries.

MS. ROMANO: On the cars for a second-- people go to buy these cars, hybrid cars, and they're a lot more expensive. How do you deal with that? People leave--then they leave with just regular old gas cars because it's just--they're $10,000 more sometimes.

SECRETARY CHU: Well, they are now. A little, but I don't know if they're $10,000 more.

MS. ROMANO: For a middle-class family they're--it's a bite.

SECRETARY CHU: Well, let's see. The Prius is about $25,000.

SECRETARY CHU: And a comparable car--so maybe-I'll concede they're maybe $5,000 different.

SECRETARY CHU: Well, it's an issue. How important is--you know, so the people who buy these cars are certainly leaders, and they feel very strongly that they need to protect the environment. In the end, I think your point is that people make choices based on local economic concerns, their own pocketbooks.

And so we just have to work towards getting these plug-in electric vehicles cheaper. I mean, if you actually think about it, if we can actually develop the batteries, the cost of running your car on electricity, you know, forgetting about the capital cost, but just pretend within 20 percent or 10 percent of the cost of the car, you can actually run your car for most of your errands by plugging it in. It's the equivalent of three or four times less expensive than filling it up with gasoline and filling it up with electrons.

MS. ROMANO: You're a big proponent of batteries. In fact, I was reading a line item in the budget that said that there's $2 billion allocated for battery development; is that correct?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, there's $2 billion for advanced battery manufacturing---the other thing is that we need to develop better batteries. The technologies we have today, the best batteries, commercially available batteries, are lithium ion batteries--the type, for example, found in your laptop computer.

SECRETARY CHU: We need about a factor of two higher energy density, so the same volume or weight, in order to make these plug-ins more practical.

MS. ROMANO: It just sounds like a lot of money for batteries.

SECRETARY CHU: Well, $2 billion to build manufacturing capability is not really a lot of money.

But if you think about manufacturing capabilities--this is not an issue. But it's really--what really matters is how much--how valuable are the batteries in your car.

Currently, when the new plug-in hybrids that are being developed, we're talking about a battery that could cost $10,000, one-quarter of the entire cost of the car. If that's the case, that battery last--better last the lifetime of the car, 15 years or more, of deep discharges, and currently our batteries don't last that long. As you know from your Sony, your laptop batteries, after three years, they've lost a lot of their capacity.

And so we need to develop batteries that can undergo deep discharges continuously, day after day after day for, say, 15 years--and we need to effectively double the energy density.

Now, I think those things are possible. I know several companies that are doing some real research, and it will give us some--so there's a lot of hope that within the next, say, four or five years, we can have something on the market.

MS. ROMANO: Now, OMB just cleared the way for EPA to use the regulatory process to clean up carbon emissions? Does that mean that the EPA will use the regulatory action to reduce carbon emissions or will it rely on the legislative process?

SECRETARY CHU: I think OMB was reviewing that?. I think, ideally, one would like a legislative process, but the EPA finding?. probably adds something to -- at least an incentive to get a legislative process going.

MS. ROMANO: So you're going to move -- try to move forward on -- on a regulatory basis also.

SECRETARY CHU: Well, I mean, let's wait and not prejudge what the EPA will--will do.



MS. ROMANO: You wrote in Newsweek that Americans could strike a blow for energy independence by using public transit, by car pooling. Do you really think that we can get where we want to go with conservation?

SECRETARY CHU: Absolutely. I think by--roughly 60, 70 percent of our transportation fuel is used in the private sector for personal vehicle transportation. McKinsey has done a study which says if you--in a new home, if you put in a thousand dollars more in materials and labor, that investment will pay for itself in about one year. It could be one and a half years. It depends on where the home is, of course.

So you can have both. If you're going to live in that house for 20 years, the next 18 years are free money.

MS. ROMANO: Well, the question is how do you convince America of that. I mean, it sounds great, but how do you get there?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, I think you convince them by showing that you can have much lower energy bills---on monthly bills.

I think that's--you know, the proof is in the pudding. If you can make an investment that--that can pay for itself in 5 or 10 years, this becomes very worthwhile, because you see this immediately in a lower energy bill, lower utility bills. We should be--for example, when you buy a home, you should be able to get additional mortgage so that you can make those energy improvements in your--in the home you live in. Let's say it's an older home, and so you can weatherize the home.

As far as the bank is concerned, they want to know can you afford the mortgage, which also includes the taxes, which also includes the utility bills. So it's in their best interest to ensure that whoever buys the home can afford the home.

We want to encourage banks to consider adding additional amount of money so you can weatherize it, to decrease the--the energy bills of the home, so the homeowner actually has more money to use for other things.

MS. ROMANO: we've all been hearing about solar energy for 30 years now-- When does it become commonplace to--to use solar energy as a natural thing?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, there are two things about it. Right now, solar energy, photovoltaic energy, in particular, costs more than other forms of energy. So there are two things that can ensure wider adoption.

One is what we call "real-time pricing"--

MS. ROMANO: Mm-hmm.

SECRETARY CHU: --because in, for example, the warmer climates in the United States, in the southern parts of the United States, we use the most energy during the summer, on a hot summer day --where you're using air conditioning. That's coincidentally when you're getting the most electricity generation from the photovoltaics.

So, if you allow real-time pricing--and by real-time pricing, I mean when you're in this hot summer day, you're using all the energy investments that the power company has had to put forward. A lot of the times the power-generating equipment is standing idly by, on standby, ready to be turned on for those hot summer days, and so the actual cost of generating electricity in 1 or 2 percent of the days of a year is actually quite high during those times. So real-time pricing, the real cost of electricity during those times, could be 40 cents a kilowatt hour--whereas the average might be 10 cents.

If you allow real-time pricing, what that will mean is that will mean that you can have solar energy, and then you've--you're now generating electricity via your solar panels instead of buying at 40 cents a kilowatt hour. The other thing is, quite frankly, the prices of solar energy have been coming down over the last several decades, but they're still higher, considerably higher than fossil fuel. Depending on who you talk to, it could be a factor of three or typically five times higher than fossil fuel generation.

SECRETARY CHU: And so this becomes an R&D thing. It--I think we should be investing a lot in research and totally new ways of developing photovoltaics, and I'm talking about things where you can have a continuous process, a reel-to-reel process, the way, essentially, we print newspaper, on a polymer backing that is plastic, instead of glass that will greatly reduce the cost, that we actually print on this reel-to-reel process, the electronics needed, the invertors, and all these other things. We know how to do polymer electronic now.

MS. ROMANO: Is there some funding for this going on ?

SECRETARY CHU: Well, the Department of Energy is a major funder of this more advanced research, and I think the--the prospects--you know, one can't guarantee we'll have a radical new breakthrough, but there are an awful lot of very smart people becoming very interested in going into these fields. Many scientists and engineers are beginning to feel that the energy problem, the climate change problem is such a huge problem, that they're making career changes, and -most gratifying is that a lot of young students now want to go into science and engineering to work on this problem.

So, with, you know, more intellectual, top-quality intellectual horsepower going into this, the possibility and the probability of a really transformational breakthrough will be much higher.


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