“We are in a global race to develop and deploy clean energy technologies,” Steven Chu wrote in his White House blog in 2011. “We can either sit on the sidelines and watch the competition pass us by, or we can get in the race and play to win.”
Thanks to Chu’s efforts as Secretary of Energy, we are most definitely in the race. Power from wind and solar energy has doubled under his tenure. Energy efficiency rules for appliances have spurred the development of new and improved products, and have put consumers on track to save billions of dollars while reducing energy use nationwide. And American innovators are getting research grants and financial support to discover new technologies and processes that can drastically reduce the cost of solar panels, improve advanced batteries, produce new biofuels, and enhance wind turbine efficiency—and potentially revolutionize our energy system.
The Department of Energy was responsible for a large chunk of the U.S. government’s biggest-ever investment in clean energy–$90 billion in stimulus funds – and as secretary, Chu played a critical role in overseeing those investments. Chu brought a scientist’s intellectual curiosity to his work and empowered his staff to explore new approaches. The stimulus investments produced some notable successes, including weatherizing more than 1 million homes for low-income families, saving nearly half a billion dollars in heating and cooling costs every year; doubling the domestic supply of parts for the wind industry; and supporting nearly 200,000 renewable energy jobs.
The DOE’s loan guarantee program, originally passed during the Bush Administration and funded during the stimulus, helped secure investment capital for about 40 innovative clean energy ventures. According to a mandated independent review by Herb Allison, the loan guarantee program cost $2 billion dollars less than forecast. Forbes.com cited the portfolio’s low default rate, and said it “performed remarkably well.”
Unfortunately, the failure of a single company in that portfolio, Solyndra, became a favorite target of Republicans. Extensive media coverage linked Chu’s name to Solyndra, instead of to hundreds of other clean energy success stories. In the end, the attacks proved to be a nothing more than a politically motivated distraction, and a total waste of time. Multiple Congressional hearings and thousands of pages of documentation on the Solyndra loan failed to produce any evidence of impropriety, and the Allison report concluded that the focus on Solyndra was “not proportional to its impact.”
A Nobel-prize winning scientist, Chu knew first-hand the importance of basic research, and how it can lay the groundwork for seemingly serendipitous, game-changing discoveries. He championed innovative new interdisciplinary research programs, such as Energy Innovation Hubs and Energy Frontier Research Centers, designed to help break through historic stovepipes at the DOE. He was also was an enthusiastic backer of ARPA-E, the federal program that funds potentially groundbreaking, early-stage clean energy research. (The program is modeled on the Defense Department’s DARPA, which helped create technologies like the Internet.) The first ARPA-E projects were funded under Chu’s watch, and today, ARPA-E innovators have already demonstrated breakthroughs in lithium-ion batteries and immensely powerful wind turbines.
Chu was also a major supporter of energy efficiency standards, the most cost-effective way to curb the use of fossil fuels and the pollution they cause, including global warming pollution. Energy efficiency standards for appliances enacted by Chu’s DOE will also save consumers nearly $10 billion dollars over the next 20 years, and, coupled with earlier standards, will reduce electricity use nationwide by 14 percent. (Recently, however, the momentum of this important program has slackened, and Chu’s successor will need work to keep it on track.) On his own time, Chu submitted a paper to the prestigious journal Science, in which he and his co-authors demonstrated that efficiency standards for appliances significantly reduced costs for consumers, without raising prices at all.
Chu’s scientific expertise played a crucial role in managing the disastrous Gulf oil spill. As weeks passed without a solution from BP engineers, President Obama tapped Chu, a physicist and renewable energy expert, to help find a way to stop the leak. The secretary assembled a team of independent scientists and traveled to Houston, where he helped manage the high-tech rescue operation that eventually stabilized the well.
Under Chu’s guidance, the DOE has become a major force for clean energy. We are most definitely in the race—a race to be a market leader in clean and efficient technologies, a race to shift to a clean, sustainable energy supply, a race to build a green workforce. When Chu hands off the baton, he will leave his successor in a strong position. But staying in the race—and winning it—will need continued leadership from the DOE.