Chu decries DOE ‘inertia,’ regrets heeding ‘handwringers’ 

Source: Katherine Ling, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, February 20, 2015

Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu said his “biggest mistake” during his four years in the Obama administration was deferring to nonscientific “experts” when he started the job.

“This was especially true if the advice was coming from handwringers who were more worried about negative reactions than doing the right thing,” Chu said in an interview for the March issue of MIT Technology Review.

Chu expressed frustration with a conservative culture at DOE that wasn’t open to new approaches.

“Inside the department, there was inertia to keep old programs unchanged,” he said.

He offered as an example how he had wanted to do research in biofuels regardless of whether they fit the Department of Agriculture’s definitions of fuels.

“I wanted new ideas to be funded on the merits and worry about categorization later,” he said.

The media — and what he described as their need to generate “controversy” to make news — also topped President Obama’s first Energy secretary’s list of things he found frustrating with his former job.

The Noble Prize-winning physicist took over DOE in 2009, and stayed through the start of 2013 — the longest service for anyone in the position.

Chu has since returned to the faculty at Stanford University, where he’s a professor of physics and molecular and cellular physiology. His successor at DOE’s helm, Ernest Moniz, was confirmed in the position in the spring of 2013.

During Chu’s tenure, he oversaw a surge of new projects and funding from the 2009 stimulus law. In a letter announcing his departure to DOE staff, Chu listed among the accomplishments during his time the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and Energy Innovation Hubs, the doubling of wind and solar energy, the revival of the U.S. auto manufacturing industry, and “breaking down the walls” between the agency’s basic science and applied science programs (Greenwire, Feb. 1, 2013).

While many praised his work as secretary, Chu was criticized by congressional Republicans over his administration of DOE loan guarantees, which provided assistance to bankrupt solar manufacturer Solyndra and a few other failed companies. The program has since more than overcome those losses through interest on other loans, and is projected to make $5 billion in the next two decades, according to DOE.

In his recent interview, Chu said his greatest success as secretary was recruiting “very capable scientists and engineers” to DOE and being able to ask the right questions no matter the occasion or time because of his scientific training.

While he applauded the White House and U.S. EPA’s actions on stricter regulation of mercury, particulate matter and carbon dioxide emissions, Chu urged Obama in his final two years “to begin a dialogue on policies for countries that have a meaningful price on carbon or are working to be less carbon-intensive in each particular industry.”

“We need to think of how to prevent manufacturing and extraction industries from constantly migrating to the lowest-cost, most polluting producer,” he said.

Chu commended China for its efforts to reduce carbon intensity of its industry and stated the belief that China “is likely” to put a price on carbon, although he did not provide a timeline for when that might occur.

While Chu has mainly kept a low profile since leaving the office, he raised some ire two years ago by supporting the idea that hydraulic fracturing can be done in a safe way with minimal environmental impact, telling a conference hosted by America’s Natural Gas Alliance that it was not a “false choice” (EnergyWire, Sept. 19, 2013).

He has also joined the board of directors of battery manufacturing startup Amprius in Sunnyvale, Calif., and carbon capture startup Inventys Thermal Technologies Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia.

His decision to join a carbon capture company, after repeatedly referring to coal as a “nightmare,” surprised some people. But Chu said in the interview he was trying to help with the technical aspects of capturing carbon from a natural gas power plant, as well as coal, steel or cement plants. Current methods are too expensive, costing about $60 a ton when scaled up — Chu is aiming for $15 per ton.

“Getting to $15 would make carbon capture feasible in the U.S. and China,” he said.

At Amprius, Chu is helping to focus on the chemistry of a lithium-metal-sulfur-cathode battery, which has five times the power of lithium-ion batteries, and he is seeking improvements to enable the battery to charge 10 times faster.

“Of course, as in all research, we may or may not succeed,” he said, “but I think we have a shot.”