Steven Chu, the nation's new Secretary of Energy, speaks with noted science writer Michelle Nijhuis. "We're in a war," he says, "to save our planet."How has your switch from research to politics changed your perspective on the energy challenge?
It really hasn’t changed my thinking that much. The President has made it very clear that science is science, and many of the issues we face need science and technology solutions. The Department of Energy is an incredible science resource, and part of its mission is to provide the best scientific advice directly to policy makers—and that, fundamentally, is nonpartisan.
You’ve criticized corn ethanol. As secretary, how do you plan to move us away from this biofuel?
Corn ethanol is not the ultimate solution to decreasing our dependence on oil, and neither is it the ideal climate solution. Under the last administration, the Department of Energy started to aggressively develop new methods for turning agricultural waste and other material into biofuels—not just ethanol, but more suitable fuels. Within six months, scientists had modified yeast and bacteria to process simple sugars and turn them into fuel that can be blended at any ratio and used in existing pipelines. The issue now is to up the output to make these organisms commercially viable. So we need to identify these great research ideas that the Department of Energy is already sponsoring.
You’ve said we must develop an inexpensive way to capture and store the carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. But last year, the Department of Energy scaled back FutureGen, a major capture-and-storage demonstration project. How do you plan to accelerate the development of these technologies?
The United States should be taking a leadership position in developing technologies for all types of carbon capture. We’re certainly going to review the FutureGen project, and there are other technologies that we have to start looking at. For example, we have to develop carbon-capture technologies that can be used in existing coal plants. Europe has something on the order of ten carbon-capture projects, and China wants to develop its own projects. In the United States there’s been this thinking that these other efforts don’t really exist. It behooves all of us—Europe, Asia, the United States—to say, OK, there’s at least a half dozen technologies that have to be looked at, because we don’t really know which is superior.
Would you rather see nuclear reactors constructed than more coal-fired power plants?
Yes. I think nuclear power has its problems: We haven’t solved the long-term storage problems, and we have to be very cognizant of the proliferation problem. But the safety is better and will continue to get better, and nuclear power is far better for climate than coal.
Many scientists say we must make deep cuts in carbon emissions within just a few decades, or risk destabilizing the climate. Can the technologies you’re talking about be developed fast enough to head off some of the worst effects of climate change?
Energy efficiency can be improved very quickly. Better insulation standards for buildings can be had instantly. Appliance standards, ka-BOOM, can be had right away. And I think in five to ten years, we can go to fuels made from grasses and biowaste. But it will take time to learn how to capture carbon. It will take time to develop a new generation of solar power technology.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next four years?
The Department of Energy is the biggest supporter of the physical sciences in the United States, but it also has a mission to take what is developed in national labs and universities and transfer this knowledge to applied research—research that will lead to really new ideas about sources of energy and ways of using our energy more efficiently. So that’s one of the things the Department of Energy will be focusing on—how do we make that transition?
Why did you personally turn your attention to renewable energy?
About six years ago, I got increasingly concerned about climate change. The more I followed what we were learning, the more ominous it got. Just like during World War II, when a lot of the best physicists went to work on radar and the atomic bomb, the world needs scientists to work on this issue. We’re in a war to save our planet.
Interview by Michelle Nijhuis