The Obama administration has unveiled a $2.4-billion grant program to promote plug-in hybrid cars, which will travel 40 miles on a single electricity charge and 100 miles on a gallon of gas. You’ll rarely have to fill the tank if you don’t drive much.
The only drawback, energy secretary Steven Chu indicated, is that if you don’t run the engine much, the battery gets weak, as he learned first hand some years ago. “When I was at Stanford, I rode my bike everywhere,” Chu recalled. “I went through batteries like crazy because I didn’t drive enough.”
How cool is that? The guy in charge of America’s energy department used to get around mostly on his bike. Chu, who is slight, soft-spoken and 61–you can read a brief autobiography here–spoke this afternoon at an energy forum sponsored by the The Washington Post and Siemens. He made clear that he committed to help move the United States away from fossil fuels and towards a low carbon economy, and he argued that “science will supply us with a lot of the answers” about how to get there.
Wind power, solar power, geothermal power—they will all help slow the growth in carbon emissions, jump-start the economy and reduce our dependence on imported oil. But the future of the U.S. depends, above all, on developing its brainpower.
“We have to invest in our intellectual capability, because it is the intellectual horsepower of the country that will create new wealth,” Chu said.
That’s a welcome, if not surprising, point of view. Chu is a brainy, even geeky, physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in 1997. Hee directed the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab before coming to Washington. And he spoke passionately about the nine years he spent during his 30s and early 40s at Bell Labs, the storied industrial laboratory run by AT&T.
“When I got to Bell Labs, it was an incredibly eye-opening experience,” Chu said. “They did not hire proven winners. They hired young kids… We all grew up together.” Five of his colleagues went on to win Nobel Prizes. But the story does not have a happy ending. “Sadly, Bell Labs is no more,” Chu said. Today, only a handful of companies—IBM, Microsoft, Intel, GE, United Technologies—operate industrial labs, and they tend to focus on later stage research.
Chu spoke hopefully about a DOE project known as ARPA-E, which will invest government funds in research that could lead to breakthrough findings — but more often will not.
“The plan is to invest in high risk (projects) with a significant potential for failure,” he said. “It’s like venture capital, squared, if you will.”
The trouble is, the energy department has an unimpressive track record when it comes to spurring new technology. It’s famously bureaucratic.
Indeed, Chu made a bit of news at the event when he announced a $535 million loan guarantee to a company called Solyndra, which makes thin-film solar panels. This is a good thing—the company has an impressive technology, it can’t raise private capital in this economy without the guarantee, and its new factory in Fremont, Ca., will create 3,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs. But if I understood Chu correctly, this is the first loan guarantee approved under a program adopted back in 2006. He said the program has been been plagued with excessive paperwork that the department is now trying to streamline. “We’re working as hard and as fast as we can,” he said. The DOE is tracking its progress at this website, www.energy.gov/recovery. It may turn out that the department needs a strong administrator and policy person more than it needs a scientist like Chu.
Still, there’s something refreshing when a cabinet secretary comes across more as a professor than as a politician. In his unassuming way, Chu showed a few slides about global warming—pine forests in British Columbia ravaged by beetles, a melting glacier in Greenland—and warned of the “potential for very serious consequences of climate change.” He said we need a World War II-like effort to conserve energy, showing a poster with the headline, “Should Brave Men Die So You Can Drive?” And he ended his talk with the famous photo of the earth taken from Apollo 7.
“There’s nowhere else to go,” Chu noted. “We really have to focus on that.”