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What Will Steven Chu’s Energy Legacy Be?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Courtesy of Department of Energy

Steven Chu will step down as Secretary of Energy at the end of this month, though he “may stay beyond that time so that I can leave the Department in the hands of the new Secretary,” he wrote in a farewell letter to Department of Energy (DoE) staff, issued February 1. Regardless, when Chu leaves he will have earned the title of longest serving energy secretary in U.S. history.

Chu also leaves as one of the nation’s most ambitious energy secretaries, having presided over the disbursement of $36 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, more widely known simply as “the stimulus.” Chu used that money to back with grants or loan guarantees a wide range of alternative energy technologies in a bid to wean the U.S. from its more than $400 billion-a-year imported oil habit, ranging from electric cars to photovoltaics, as well as the first new nuclear power plant constructed in the country for more than 30 years. “I believe we should be judged not by the money we direct to a particular state or district, company, university or national lab, but by the character of our decisions,” Chu wrote.

“Steve helped my administration move America towards real energy independence,” President Obama said in a statement. “Over the past four years, we have doubled the use of renewable energy, reduced our dependence on foreign oil, and put our country on a path to win the global race for clean energy jobs.”

For Chu, “the sweet spot at DoE has been on the front side: research and development,” he told Scientific American last year in an interview about the Obama administration’s so-called all-of-the-above energy strategy. (He has also written for Scientific American abut his Nobel Prize-winning work in physics.) “Then, as you go to helping deployment and how to finance deployment, there is an important role for government.”

A great part of Chu’s legacy will be his founding of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, modeled on the longstanding Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In just four years, ARPA–e has already notched some significant achievements, from better batteries for electric vehicles to better manufacturing technologies for the silicon wafers that comprise solar cells. “While it is too early to tell if we have home runs like ARPA-net [the precursor of today's Internet], there are a number of investments that have certainly rounded second base,” Chu wrote, also noting that the ARPA-e spirit has percolated throughout the department more generally, via initiatives like SunShot—a bid to reduce the cost of solar power to $1 per watt.

It was such solar technology that proved most troublesome to Chu’s tenure, as some companies funded under the stimulus subsequently failed, notably Solyndra and Abound Solar. And the bankruptcy of A123 Systems may presage a similar fate for some of the advanced battery makers similarly backed. Of course, those failures are a result of the success in making solar power and batteries cheaper and better globally, as well as a typical outcome for high-risk, high-reward efforts like those ARPA-e is focused on. “The test for America’s policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for many successes,” Chu noted in his letter.

Ultimately, Chu may be best remembered as the scientist who helped spearhead efforts to cap BP’s Macondo deep-sea oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The effort involved hundreds of national lab scientists and employees and successfully stopped the flow of oil. As Chu said in an email enlisting aid that summer, quoting Gregory Peck in Guns of Navarrone: “”Your bystanding days are over! You’re in it now, up to your neck! They told me that you’re a genius with explosives. Start proving it!” Of course, Chu quickly noted that explosives were not likely to be useful “on this mission… the rest rings true.”

On climate change, Chu’s record was more mixed: on the one hand supporting clean energy and on the other increasing domestic production of oil and locking in continued reliance on fossil fuels. At the same time, the U.S. saw its best hope for curbing emissions from such fossil fuel use—the CO2-capture-and-storage project at the Mountaineer Power Plant in W. Va.—shuttered. “We need to develop the technologies that enable us to use our fossil fuels in a clean way,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told Scientific American in 2011. “This is something you don’t solve in five years, 10 years. It will take a half century to get our carbon emissions down to where we need to go to protect the climate.”

Perhaps Chu’s real legacy will be that one of the many research projects he backed during his tenure will prove to be a future breakthrough that helps the U.S. continue to combat climate change. “Just as today’s boom in shale gas production was made possible by Department of Energy research from 1978 to 1991, some of the most significant work may not be known for decades,” Chu wrote. “What matters is that our country will reap the benefits of what we have started.”


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 6:29 pm 02/1/2013

    Chu will be remembered as Obama’s “all of the above” Energy Department advocate.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Gregory CH 6:52 am 02/2/2013

    Expectations for him as a science advocate were very high but history will most likely will paint him as an advocate for the development of energy related industry. That’s not necessarily bad but he failed as an advocate for the basic sciences he has his roots in.

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  3. 3. dbtinc 8:50 am 02/2/2013

    Has there been a return yet on this investment?

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  4. 4. cjoyce 10:39 am 02/2/2013

    A return on investment is a nice thing, but then again, the whole point to government backed R&D is the fact that there isn’t an expectation of profit. Once you remove that expectation of profit you also remove the short term pressure, allowing the maturation of technologies.

    The ARPA-net example illustrates this quite well. From concept to modern internet was decades, prohibitive for private investment. Add Keynesian economic stimulus and you have the very reason for this type of government involvement in the process. The results of the last four years of DoE policy, for this reason remain to be seen and just might for awhile. A pertinent question might be “how much more could have been accomplished without the trickle down push back from the House of Reps?”

    As for Chu himself, surely he will find room for scientific contribution after his time in the bureaucratic realm. I imagine the “simplicity” of physics will be refreshing after so long at the DoE.

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  5. 5. sethdayal 6:19 pm 02/2/2013

    Under Chu’s regime, the money spent on advanced nuclear the only possible solution to global warming and the United State’s 10 year tech advantage, dropped to almost nothing ($200M annually) while expenditures on nuclear weapons and worthless carbon capture, wind and solar exceeded $100B annually. The US’s lead in high tech nuclear dropped to zero, and China has taken over the yoke.

    While under Chu filthy GHG spewing fossil fuels, much of it used to back up wind and solar, continued relentlessly to kill tens of thousands of American’s from air and ground water pollution, the Chinese started construction of a 200MW HTGR reactor for 2017 with 70 per cent of it output devoted to clean and green synfuel production. As Chu’s last act he gave out a $1 million contract to study the concept.

    He was and is a traitor to his country.

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  6. 6. Carlyle 7:17 pm 02/2/2013

    Just imagine what the dividend would have been had he devoted those billions to something that actually works. Future generations will curse our wastefulness in unnecessarily burning fossil fuels that could have been supplanted by nuclear while pursuing pipe dreams with a proven failure record.

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  7. 7. sault 8:08 pm 02/2/2013

    Seriously, I don’t know why you people cling to nuclear power when the industry imploded in the 70′s and 80′s due to spiraling costs and decade+ construction times. How is this NOT “a proven failure record”? What’s changed since then that makes you think it won’t happen again?

    Now I’m sure a bunch of armchair BLOG commentators like you know WAY more than Nobel Laureate Steven Chu. And I guess your expansive work in TROLLING has qualified you to call him a “Traitor to his country”. I guess you just make it easy to not take you seriously when you inject such unfounded venom and negative emotion into this discussion.

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  8. 8. sethdayal 11:07 pm 02/2/2013

    Once again ole Sault with his laughable BS and MS in engineering is at it, spewing the same old many times debunked BS.

    I was writing here about CHu’s rejection of advanced nuclear here – IFR’s, LFTR’s, DMSR’s, HTGR’s. Nothing to do the old clunkers that Jim Carter and the Greenpeacer’s, under contract with Big Coal/Oil were able to do in.

    A physicist has no training in engineering and is be no more able to make the best engineering decision than well ole Sault hisself. Ok maybe a bit better.

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  9. 9. sault 11:21 pm 02/2/2013


    If those technologies were so great, how come they can’t get private financing? Could it be that nobody in their right mind would risk money on them, even the federal government?

    And how could Greenpeace be “under contract with Big Coal/Oil” if both of these groups have been at each other’s throats for decades? This conspiracy theory of yours is just a little too convenient for the nuclear industry. ALL their shortcomings are blamed on scapegoats while the industry gets to claim victimhood status. The sure sign of a loser is how many excuses they have for their failures.

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  10. 10. sault 11:36 pm 02/2/2013

    Maybe this will clear things up, seth.

    “Contrary to that which many proponents of thorium claim, U-233 should be regarded as posing a definite proliferation risk.

    The argument that the high U-232 content would be selfprotecting are considered to be over-stated. NNL’s view is that thorium systems are no more proliferation resistant than U-Pu systems though they may offer limited benefits in some circumstances.

    NNL believes that while economic benefits are theoretically achievable by using thorium fuels, in current market conditions the position is marginal and insufficient to justify major investment. There is only a very weak technical basis for claims that thorium concepts using seed-blanket PWR cores will be economically advantageous.

    Claims that thorium fuels give a reduction in radiotoxicity are justified. However, caution is required because many such claims cite studies based on a self-sustaining thorium cycle in equilibrium. More realistic studies which take account of the effect of U-235 or Pu-239 seed fuels required to breed the U-233 suggest the benefits are more modest. NNL’s view is therefore that thorium fuel cycles are likely to offer modest reductions in radiotoxicity. It is considered that the realistic benefits are likely to be too marginal to justify investment in the thorium fuel cycle.

    NNL believes that LWR and PHWR utilities would be unlikely to invest in thorium fuels to the levels required under current market conditions. The potential savings that thorium fuels offer and other claimed benefits are insufficiently demonstrated and too marginal to justify the technical risk that the utility would be exposed to.

    NNL has assessed the Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) of the thorium fuel cycle. For all of the system options more work is needed at the fundamental level to established the basic knowledge and understanding. Thorium reprocessing and waste management are poorly understood. The thorium fuel cycle cannot be considered to be mature in any area.”

    Yeah, maybe all that book learnin’ and smartification that Steven Chu done did actually paid off! You reckon?

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  11. 11. sault 11:44 pm 02/2/2013

    Or how about this?

    “But even were its[thorium's] commercial viability established, given 2010′s soaring greenhouse gas levels, thorium is one magic bullet that is years off target. Those who support renewables say they will have come so far in cost and efficiency terms by the time the technology is perfected and upscaled that thorium reactors will already be uneconomic. Indeed, if renewables had a fraction of nuclear’s current subsidies they could already be light years ahead.

    Thorium cannot in itself power a reactor; unlike natural uranium, it does not contain enough fissile material to initiate a nuclear chain reaction. As a result it must first be bombarded with neutrons to produce the highly radioactive isotope uranium-233 – ‘so these are really U-233 reactors,’ says Karamoskos.

    This isotope is more hazardous than the U-235 used in conventional reactors, he adds, because it produces U-232 as a side effect (half life: 160,000 years), on top of familiar fission by-products such as technetium-99 (half life: up to 300,000 years) and iodine-129 (half life: 15.7 million years).Add in actinides such as protactinium-231 (half life: 33,000 years) and it soon becomes apparent that thorium’s superficial cleanliness will still depend on digging some pretty deep holes to bury the highly radioactive waste.

    With billions of pounds already spent on nuclear research, reactor construction and decommissioning costs – dwarfing commitments to renewables – and proposed reform of the UK electricity markets apparently hiding subsidies to the nuclear industry, the thorium dream is considered by many to be a dangerous diversion.”

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  12. 12. Carlyle 2:16 am 02/3/2013

    I have been following the progress of PV technology since their first use in the early space age. Nothing has changed in forty years. They still do not work in the dark & never will. All other advances are irrelevant. Even if a viable energy storage system was available, to generate 24/7 power on a reliable basis would require 5 or 6 times as much collector area plus the cost of the storage system. This is totally impractical. The energy density of solar & the shortcomings above are immutable.
    All the billions spent on solar have not changed this situation. All the installed soar has to be backed up with conventional power, driving up the costs of power in countries that have heavily invested in solar to catastrophic industry killing levels where countries like France have contained their energy costs by relying on nuclear. It is a no brainier.
    Policies that ignore these facts will continue to fail & as a consequence continue the wasteful consumption of fossil fuels that could otherwise have been supplanted. The responsibility for this with the resultant pollution & deaths rests squarely with those who hinder the further development & implementation of nuclear power.
    I give Chu a $36 billion fail.

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  13. 13. Carlyle 4:04 am 02/3/2013

    Your first link is credible & points out the difficulties facing the thorium option. It does not conclude that the technology will never be viable.
    Your second link to The Guardian is as one would expect. Much like SA really. Greener than Kermit.

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  14. 14. sault 1:30 pm 02/3/2013


    Exactly, so criticizing Sec. Chu for not going full-bore for thorium, calling him a “traitor to his country” is a ridiculous position. And since we don’t have forever to deal with fossil fuel depletion and climate change, putting all our eggs in the thorium basket is reckless, especially considering we have NO IDEA how well that basket will function.

    As for your other post, you constantly complain about renewable energy yet show NOTHING to back up your claims. Please show me some examples of all this “backup” generation that solar power requires! Since the overwhelming majority of PV is hooked up to the grid and merely acts like a negative load cancelling out demand during the daytime, this position is likewise ridiculous. Criticizing solar energy for not working during nighttime hours is just as silly as criticizing coal, gas or nuclear for not running when they run out fuel.

    Look, I’ve shown you NUMEROUS TIMES that Germany is doing just fine switching over to clean energy. They have one of the strongest economies in Europe and weathered the financial meltdown all while dramatically building up their clean energy capacity. They make money selling electricity to France when their fleet of inflexible nuclear plants can’t keep up with demand. Wholesale electricity prices have plummeted there because of the zero fuel costs of renewable energy while rate increases there can almost totally be explained by the German Utilities increasing their profit margins (while not passing on the savings of lower wholesale prices from clean energy to their customers) and the 1 – 2% annual increases that happen regardless of policy.

    Look, if you can honestly say you’re open to new ideas, discussion and reevaluating your previous conclusions / assumptions / beliefs, and you still feel so strongly against clean energy, I’m fine with that. However, you dismiss whole lines of evidence solely on your dislike of anything with the “green” label (that’s the most consistent reasoning I can come up with…) and not on the actual merits of the proof it presents. You’re missing out on whole swathes of this discussion. If you provided ANY evidence of your own, maybe I could show you how to conduct a proper discussion.

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  15. 15. dwbd 1:40 pm 02/3/2013

    Sault’s NNSL paper is so full of errors & false statements, that the people responsible should be immediately fired.

    It doesn’t even mention LFTR, the predominate of the new Thorium tech, seems they never heard of it. And this is a research paper, by so-called “experts”?!?

    And the conclusions are opposite of an actual properly researched paper by IAEA on Thorium, that documents and is prepared by World experts, with references & citations, sadly lacking in the NNL report:

    Perfect example, the NNL claims:

    “..Attempts to lower the fissile content of uranium by adding U-238 are considered to offer only weak protection, as the U-233 could be separated in a centrifuge cascade in the same way that U-235 is separated from U-238 in the standard uranium fuel cycle..”

    That is an idiotic statement, as explained here:

    “..Good night. Isotropic protection is considered the STRONGEST form of protection against proliferation. With this statement we should shut down all uranium mines as they expose uranium which offers only “weak” protection. This is a hit piece! It is sad. It is virtually certain that the author knows this is a false statement. It tells me we have staunch opponents in NNL and educating them won’t help…”

    “..Separating uranium isotopes by centrifuge is utterly impractical for the isotopic mixture that would be found in the equilibrium uranium core salt in a LFTR. Five isotopes of uranium are present and are only separated by a single atomic mass each. The centrifuge cascade would be hopelessly contaminated by the introduction of this uranium mixture and the radiation exposure (mostly from U-232) would be unacceptable for personnel..”

    So it is fair to say that we must conclude the authors of the report have ZERO CREDIBILITY.

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  16. 16. dwbd 1:43 pm 02/3/2013

    As for Sault’s schlock Guardian article, which relies on five “experts” not one of whom has any qualifications whatsoever on Nuclear Power, and all are avowed anti-Nuclear fanatics. The only even slightly legitimate reference used was the NNL and that report has been totally shredded here:

    The Guardian article was converted into something of less value than one piece of toilet tissue here:


    “..If I had handed this paper into my eighth-grade English teacher as an example of the defense of a thesis statement, I expect that he would have given me a low grade. He would have said:

    1. You didn’t defend your thesis.
    2. You changed your thesis halfway through the paper.
    3. You didn’t defend your new thesis.
    4. You had no conclusion.

    Final grade: D-. Redo your paper Mr. Rees, and try to support your thesis next time..”

    Link to this
  17. 17. dwbd 1:57 pm 02/3/2013

    Let’s see how Sault’s Renewables Flagship, Germany has done with 15 yrs of all-out effort:

    Here is Germany’s total Energy Production:

    The thin little green line on top is their much-hyped Wind & Solar Energy. Any thickening of that green line is matched with a thickening of their NG line that is 5X larger. Notice how #1 anti-Nuclear country Germany, achieved a lot more and a lot quicker with their mundane Nuclear expansion than they have with their mega-subsidy Solar & Wind program. Their Renewable Energy program was “so successful” that they are building 23 humungous lignite dirt-burners to supply the bulk of their new electricity requirements. Why aren’t they building Solar & Wind instead? Germany produces 601 gm CO2 per kwh of electricity generated (one of the highest in Europe), while Nuclear France produces 83 gm CO2 per kwh.

    Solar & Wind works so well in Germany that they are using “Green” Subsidy money (much of it obtained by taxes on their dirt-cheap Nuclear Energy) to finance fume-belching Brown Coal burning monsters, so they can export their toxic emissions to all of their neighbors to breath. Nice guys.

    Now lets see what France did in the same amount of time:

    See the big fat yellow line – that’s Nuclear. Notice how much Oil consumption it replaced. So that is what France achieved with a mediocre effort, using an ancient US design LWR. No Factory Construction. No Assembly Line production. No modern CAD or CAM. No modern PLC/DCS control systems. No Small Modular Reactors. No modern tech/science or computer simulations & modeling. And yet they managed to generate half of their Energy Supply with Nuclear in about 15 yrs. This is for a middle wealth nation, with the best health care & social services in the World, one of the most expensive, World Class Military in the World, and during the period improved their Standard of Living & productivity much faster than Renewables Germany, and instituted a 4 day, max 35 hr work week with minimum 5 weeks paid vacation – most get 8 weeks. See:

    Sault claims that is a “proven failure”.

    Notice how duplicating that modest effort one more time and France would be 100% Green Nuclear Energy.

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  18. 18. sault 2:28 pm 02/3/2013

    Great dwbd, trot out that tired, old graph of German ENERGY production that is now 4 more than years out of date, excludes electricity trade Germany has bailing out France from their inflexible nuclear fleet, all while obscuring ELECTRICITY markets with OIL usage! That’s right, your graph includes all that oil used for transportation, diluting renewable energy’s contribution…you know…the thing we’re ACTUALLY talking about here…

    And France’s nuclear build-out was anything but a “modest” effort. The SOCIALIST government determined that nuclear was the way to go. They employed command-and-control policies to make it happen. Maybe this is why nuclear power has fizzled in FREE markets while showing some potential only in places like CHINA. I didn’t know you were a fan of Mao, dwbd!

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  19. 19. sault 2:48 pm 02/3/2013

    Besides, India’s fast breeder reactor is already 50% over-budget and now 3 years behind schedule. Real savior technology there!

    “As of 2007 the reactor was expected to begin functioning in 2010.[2] As of April 2011, it was expected to be commissioned in 2012.[3]As of July 2012, it was expected to begin operations in 2013. Total costs, originally estimated at 3500 crore (35 billion) Rupees are now estimated at 5,677 crore (56 billion) Rs”

    That NNL study is looking all the more prescient…Or how about safety concerns?

    “The fact that PFBR will be cooled by liquid sodium creates additional safety requirements to isolate the coolant from the environment, since sodium explodes if it comes into contact with water and burns when in contact with air. Another hazard associated with the use of sodium as a coolant is the absorption of neutrons to generate the radioactive isotope Na-24.”

    And quoting some blogger as proof does wonders for your credibility. I’ve routinely seen NNadir post ridiculous stuff on those boards…and he sounds A LOT like you. Are you just trying to promote your own ramblings? The circular reasoning you employ all too often would lead me to believe so. If you believe blog ramblings and the error-riddled cheer-leading of Charles Barton, then no wonder you’re trapped in this fantasy bubble where nuclear power can do no wrong and all its shortcomings were inflicted upon it by those meanie big oil environmentalists!!! (do you even step back and listen to yourself sometimes?)

    Come back here when you have some REAL studies to present. I can write a BLOG where I talk about all the unicorns running through my backyard…Doesn’t mean it’s true, though!

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  20. 20. sault 3:17 pm 02/3/2013

    dwbd, have you looked over the “Disadvantages” section in this article yet?

    I mean, the “Advantages” section has been criticized as “sounding like an advertisement”, so maybe you or one of your thorium buddies wrote it. Is it too much to ask you to consider that LFTRs have some potential, but they are not a panacea or silver bullet that will solve all our problems (especially given the 10 – 20 years we will need to develop them to see if they are commercially viable)?

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  21. 21. Carlyle 11:16 pm 02/3/2013
    So tell me. How much solar energy is going to be produced in Germany today? None or next to none. Billions of dollars worth of solar PVs’ Brutally cold & cloudy nation wide. Where are the German people drawing their power from today? 5 AM. Not one city with a clear sky. Backup? They would be dying without it. What kind of proof do you accept?
    I did make one error though. Your link:
    Not credible after all.

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  22. 22. Carlyle 3:45 am 02/4/2013

    Here is another little fact for you. What about sunny Spain. Another heavy investor in solar. How are they doing today & for the next five days forecast?
    Desperate unemployment & economic situation through profligate spending, including on solar, uncompetitive industry killing power cost?
    Seen any evidence of the futility of spending billions on solar yet?

    Link to this

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