Enter the 'Egghead': Steven Chu for Energy Secretary

Saying “the Univeristy of California-Berkeley” and “U.S. energy policy” in the same sentence may send a chill up the spine of some in the oil patch, but they better get used to it. Berkeley physicist Steven Chu will be named Secretary of Energy under the Obama administration.

steve_chu_balances Berkeley physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Chu. (UC Berkeley Photo).

The 60-year-old Nobel laureate will oversee an agency with a $25 billion budget, 14,000 employees and more than 193,000 contract workers. Two-thirds of its budget involves activities related to nuclear weapons research and maintenance.
Chu has been Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since August, 2004 (with a staff of 4,000 and a budget of about $600 million). His bio describes him as “… an early advocate for finding scientific solutions to climate change” who had led the lab “on a new mission to become the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy.”
A big push under Chu at the labs has centered around the notion that biological engineering of non-food plants, combined with nanoscience, can create liquid fuels.
NPR notes Chu’s Nobel credentials will be a first for the post. Stanford University environmental scientist Steve Schneider, who knows Chu, told the Associated Press he is ” a world-class intellectual” who will push hard within the Obama administration for reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions.
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said in a statement Chu’s experience “seems to dovetail perfectly with the President-elect’s commitment to bringing new energy technology to market in a timely fashion. An understanding of the art of the possible in energy technology will be critical to the development of a cost-effective climate change policy.”
But Frank Maisano, a Washington-based energy specialist with Bracewell & Giuliani (who is also with ERCC), told the Chronicle’s David Ivanovich choosing a scientist for the DOE post and naming Carol Browner, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator as the newly created “climate czar” inside the White House “underscores the high profile the White House will play in energy policy within its own walls.”
Some have been concerned about Obama’s support of the corn-based ethanol industry in the U.S. This is Chu’s take on it from a segment on PBS’ The News Hour last year:

“Corn, at best, is a transition crop, but very quickly we want to transition away from corn to a grass that requires far less land for the amount of fuel, far less fertilizer, far less water.”

Chu’s take on those who scoff at renewable energy?

“You can be against wind, because big windmills are unsightly. You can be against nuclear for a lot of reasons. You can be against biofuel for a lot of reasons. And the end result is we go to coal. Coal is cheap; it’s plentiful; and the default is coal. And that’s what you have to understand is, you can be against everything, but then what are you going to be for?”

chu_and_arnold CNN reports Calif. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (left) and former Secretary of State Colin Powell were also being considered for head of DOE. (UC Berkeley Photo).

How will Chu be on working with the energy industry? While it’s not directly analogous to the idea of government/industry partnership, he wrote about academic/industry partnering in an editorial he co-authored with UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau for the San Francisco Chronicle last year as it related to a project the school was doing with energy giant BP:

“Faculty who mistrust industrial partnerships should not be allowed to block other faculty who want to partner with industry. Ironically, an earlier generation of concerned faculty voiced misgivings that the large increase in government-funded research shortly after World War II would distort academic research that had been previously supported primarily by industry and private philanthropy. The lesson we should remember from this earlier experience is simple. As long as the source of external funding is not permitted to compromise the core values of a university, additional support provides us with the means to better serve our students, our scholars and society.”

In the “News Hour” piece Chu said he is “the least-educated person in my immediate family. My two other brothers have multiple advanced degrees, and I only have one,” but his 1997 Nobel evened the score.

“Chu grew up in New York. An A-minus student in high school, he was denied admission to Ivy League colleges. So he went to the University of Rochester and then on to Berkeley in experimental physics. He won his Nobel Prize in 1997 for work on cooling atoms with laser light. Today, he still works in the lab, but his focus now is too big for one researcher.”

• Here’s Chu speaking on the future of environmental law and policy in April.
• The audio, video and a transcript of Chu’s 2007 appearance on PBS’ The News Hour.
More speeches etc. from his faculty web site:
Chu’s autobiography from the Nobel site, where he talks about his poor study habits, failed sporting exploits, how noodling around in the lab with a classical music-related observation led to the realization he didn’t want to be a theoretical physicist, and how he was scooped by a few months on his post-doc thesis.
• Finally ‘behind the scenes’ footage where Chu and other Nobel laureates pose for a Vanity Fair magazine cover shoot. See Chu get worked-over by a make-up artist!