Steven Chu

From Global Energy Monitor
Steven Chu: Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Steven Chu has been appointed by President-elect Barack Obama as Energy Secretary in his administration.[1] He is currently the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a position that he has held since the start of August 2004.[2] Since his appointment Chu has repeatedly emphasized the reality and potential severity of human-induced global warming.

To address rising greenhouse gas emissions, Chu has endorsed increased energy efficiency and the need to dramatically expand carbon-free sources of energy. In particular, he supports the expansion of wind and solar, but has identified the need for further research into technologies that will allow storage to allow power use when the wind is not blowing or the sun not shining. He has expressed doubts about the prospects for nuclear fusion within the forseeable future and, while acknowledging significant problems with nuclear fission, supports its expansion as a "Co2 neutral" source of electricity.[3]

He has expressed ambivalence about continued reliance on coal, having stated in early 2007 that "coal is my worst nightmare."[4]While he has expressed doubts about the prospects for carbon capture and storage associated with coal-fired power stations, he has, since his nomination as Energy Secretary by Barack Obama, pledged that he will ensure "greater investment in technology to capture and store carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants."[5] In a hearing on his nomination before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Chu stated that "if the world continues to use coal the way it has been—I mean China, India, Russia—then it is a pretty bad dream" but acknowledged that coal is a "very abundant resource". He also stated that he was "hopeful and optimistic that we can figure out how to use coal in a clean way."[6]In September 2010, as elections heated up for Democrats in West Virginia, Chu said he would "save coal" by investing billions into carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology: "We are the Saudi Arabia of coal...No one is going to turn their back on coal. The issue is how to use coal in a clean way."[7]


A biographical profile distributed by the Obama transition team stated that Chu is "director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at University of California, Berkeley. Winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997, Dr. Chu served on the technical staff at AT&T Bell Labs (1978 –1987) and was a professor in the Physics and Applied Physics Departments at Stanford University (1987 – 2004). One of the world's most distinguished scientists, Dr. Chu commands deep respect from his peers, deftly manages a complex governmental organization, and has a keen sense of public service. He successfully applied the techniques he developed in atomic physics to molecular biology, and since 2004, motivated by his deep interest in climate change, he has transformed the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab into a broad and innovative research program on energy technologies. He has a BS in physics from the University of Rochester and his Ph.D from UC-Berkeley."[1]

Joint project with BP

As the director of the Energy Department-funded Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu helped broker the creation of the Energy Biosciences Institute, with $500 million in funding over ten years from BP. The institute includes the LBL, the University of Illinois and the University of California Berkeley. A LBL media release explained that "as part of its continuing drive to find longer term commercial alternatives to oil and gas, BP announced in 2006 that it would invest $500 million over the next ten years to establish the Institute, the first public-private institution of this scale in the world. The Institute’s emphasis on new fuels meshed with UC Berkeley’s and Berkeley Lab’s research aims to develop sustainable sources of energy and Illinois’ efforts to develop biofuel feedstocks. The three formed a strategic partnership to submit a proposal to BP, which was selected in February 2007 from among five international proposals."[8]

The project was Chu pitched BP's deal to the UC-Berkeley Academic Senate, one-third of whose members voted against it. Chu also promoted the institute on campus, saying "money" was the only reason more biofuels research wasn't already underway. The university's compromise agreement gave BP half of the seats on the board governing the institute. As Energy Secretary, Chu will likely "face pressure to partner with corporations in pursuing technological solutions to climate change," notes Harkinson in Mother Jones. "As the incoming Obama administration prepares to spend liberally to develop cleaner sources of energy, the structure of corporate-government partnerships will determine how the profits of that research return to taxpayers, and how rigorously scientists evaluate the downsides of controversial technologies such as biofuels."[9]

In an opinion column in the San Francisco Chronicle Chu and the chancellor of UC Berkley, Robert J. Birgeneau, defended the deal: "In these partnerships, universities must protect the academic integrity of faculty. The terms of the partnership must be based on fundamental principles that allow for open and timely dissemination of research results. Agreements must respect our primary commitment to the education of our students, and support our ability to make research results available for public benefit in a diligent and timely manner. The contract with BP for the EBI, which is being drafted for approval this summer, will meet these requirements. ... Faculty who mistrust industrial partnerships should not be allowed to block other faculty who want to partner with industry," they wrote.[10]

They proclaimed that it would "serve as a model for large-scale academic-industry partnerships that will play an increasingly important role in solving the major global problems of the 21st century."[10]

Notable quotes

  • July 8, 2005: "We think energy efficiency and conservation can reduce consumption by as much as a factor of 5, but the final problem remains: we have got to stop the Co2 emissions".[11]
  • July 8, 2005: "First we will run out of oil. Then we will run out of gas. So what's left? There will be lots of coal, hundreds of years of it. It is estimated between the years 2003-2030, the total power output of coal plants will be 1.4TW, or 1.4 x 1012 of power. The United States now consumers 0.3TW of power. With the new coal plants that will be built, the projection is that in the next 30 years, we will add 3 times more CO2 to the atmosphere than from the previous 250 years. If we continue with business as usual, and continue to use fossil fuel, we will have bought into a really serius problem. Once you spent tens and hundreds billions of dollars on coal-burning plants, it will be tough not to use them. There is also energy available from tar sands and shell oil which, like coal, are actually considered to be reserves as well. However, these energy sources are equally bad for CO2 emissions. Remember, the feeling right now among many scientists is that we may not have ten or twenty years left to get the energy situation under control.[11]
  • July 8, 2005: "What about energy conservation and energy efficiency? Some people think that will solve the problem. It won't solve the problem unless we stop consuming energy at a level beyond a factor of 10. We think energy efficiency and conservation can reduce energy consultion by as much as a factor of 5, but the final problem remains: we have got to stop the Co2 emissions.[11]
  • July 8, 2005: On nuclear fusion Chu wrote that "after 60 years of research we are not yet close. The most optimistic researchers predict that maybe in 40 or 50 years, commercial energy sources based on nuclear fusion may become possible."[11]
  • July 8, 2005: Nuclear fission, he wrote, "has three problems. First, nuclear fission produces a lot of radioactive waste. in addition, there is always the concern of nuclear proliferation. The third issue is the emotional averison the public may have towards nuclear fission. If the United States wants to get itself on a nuclear economy, it will have to make nuclear power reactors capable of producing 3TW of power. This is the equivalent of to one new billion watts (GW) reactor every week for the next 50 years. As a result, the amount of radioactive waste generated will become significant .... It would take more than 100,000 years for all isotopes to fall below the E.P.A standard. Roughly speaking, the nuclear waste problem is a 100,000 years problem and 100,000 years is a long time. Civilization is only 8,000 years old. The Neanderthal men just appeared on earth about 100,000 years ago. Therefore, the waste problem will leave quite a legacy for future generations ... However, we do not quite know how to resolve the waste problem in a very efficient way. I think a lot of research should be done on this problem, because nuclear energy, either fusion or fission is CO2 neutral"."[11]
  • July 8, 2005: "What about energy conservation and energy efficiency? Some people think that will solve the problem. It won't solve the problem unless we stop consuming energy at a level beyond a factor of 10. We think energy efficiency and conservation can reduce energy consultion by as much as a factor of 5, but the final problem remains: we have got to stop the Co2 emissions.[11]
  • July 21, 2005: "The overwhelming consensus among atmospheric scientists is that the earth is warming up, and the mostly likely cause is our emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. In the last 140 years, the average temperature of the Globe has warmed up by ~ 1.2° F. Since 1860, 19 of the 20 warmest years have all occurred since 1980; the 11 warmest years occurred all since 1990. 1998 was the warmest year in the instrumental record, and probably the warmest in 1,000 years. 2002 was the second warmest year."[12]
  • July 21, 2005: "Because of global warming, I stress that we have to find sources that do not add more CO2 into the atmosphere. Because of this requirement, I have great concern over new investments in conventional coal-burning plants. There is a potential that carbon sequestration will allow us to convert coal into syngas (mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen) and then capture and sequester CO 2 by-products under ground, but this technology is not yet proven. While we investigate the feasibility of this approach, we should look at other alternatives."[12]
  • July 21, 2005: "Unfortunately, there appear to be no magic bullets to solve the energy problem. While efficiencies play a huge role in defining how much energy we consume, we must also develop a diversified portfolio of investments to develop sustainable, CO2-neutral sources of energy."[12]
  • July 21, 2005: "Fission energy has significant issues: long term waste storage and the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons materials. Despite these issues, it needs a second look, especially if radioactive waste can be greatly reduced by recycling and burning down long-lived radioactive products into shorter-lived waste without the separation of plutonium. People are now beginning to talk about reducing the amount of waste by a factor of at least a factor of 10- 20 and reducing the storage time to 1000 years instead of several hundred thousand years."[12]
  • July 21, 2005: "Beyond nuclear energy, our most likely option is solar energy, such as solar cells and wind. Modern wind generation is becoming economically competitive, but it cannot supply the majority of our energy needs. Photovoltaic generation needs improvement in cost and/or efficiency by a factor of 5 -10 before large-scale deployment can occur. If generation of electricity via wind or photovoltaics is to become major fraction of our energy portfolio, it will be essential to develop efficient methods to convert electricity into stored energy that we can use on demand. We must do more research into the conversion of electrical energy into chemical energy so that we can produce electricity on demand."[12]
  • February 2009: "I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going".[13]



Steven Chu is a member of the:

Articles and resources

Related articles


  1. 1.0 1.1 Barack Obama, "President-elect Barack Obama announces key members of energy and environment team", Media Release, December 15, 2008.
  2. "Director Announces New Berkeley Lab Senior Management Team", Media Release, February 22, 2005.
  3. Steven Chu, ""Biological Solution to the Energy Crisis", Lecture at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, Taiwan, July 8, 2005.
  4. Keith Johnson, "Steven Chu: ‘Coal is My Worst Nightmare’", Environmental Capital (Wall Street Journal blog), December 11, 2008.
  5. Steven Chu, "Statement of Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy-Designate Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources U.S. Senate", January 13, 2009.
  6. Keith Johnson, "Steven Chu: Okay, Coal’s Just a ‘Pretty Bad Dream’", Environmental Capital (Wall Street Journal blog), January 13, 2009.
  7. "Energy Sec. Chu Calls for More Black Lung, Strip-Mining, Coal Ash, Coal Slurry and Coalfield Poverty" HuffPo, September 10, 2010.
  8. "Energy Biosciences Institute Begins Ground-Breaking Research Into New, Cleaner Sources of Energy", Media Release, November 13, 2007.
  9. Josh Harkinson, "Is Steven Chu BFF With BP?", Mother Jones, December 18, 2008.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Robert Birgeneau and Steven Chu, "On Our Energy Future: UC-BP partnership offers path to energy independence", San Francisco Chronicle, April 15, 2007.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 Steven Chu, ""Biological Solution to the Energy Crisis", Lecture at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, Taiwan, July 8, 2005.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Steven Chu, "Synopsis of a Commonwealth Club Speech given on July 21, 2005", Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory website, accessed January 2009.
  13. Jose Luis Magana, "California farms, vineyards in peril from warming, U.S. energy secretary warns", Associated Press, February 4, 2009.
  14. " MIT World Speakers: Steven Chu", Massachusetts Institute of Technology, January 13, 2009.
  15. "Steve Chu", Copenhagen Climate Council website, accessed January 2009.

External articles

Biographical notes

U.S. Senate confirmation hearing

Congressional testimony

Speeches, articles and interviews with Chu

General articles

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