Energy Secretary Chu Remains Committed to Science-based Policy

Ken Silverstein | Feb 04, 2013

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Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s goodbye was much the same as his hello. When the Nobel prize-winning scientist accepted President Obama’s offer in 2008 to lead the federal agency, he said that science would be his guidepost. And now that he will be leaving in February, he is repeating the same mantra.

Indeed, both political parties can agree in principle that science should dictate the allocation of both national investments and federal policy decisions. But such paths are often tinged with politics and the subsequent donations that the special interests are making. And so the reality is that energy policies are shaped by a multitude of factors, which consists of scientific underpinnings along with the people’s right to petition their government.

“In the scientific world, people are judged by the content of their ideas,” writes Secretary Chu, in a lengthy letter. “Advances are made with new insights, but the final arbitrator of any point of view are experiments that seek the unbiased truth, not the information cherry picked to support a particular point of view.”

The 2009 federal stimulus act had given the Energy Department about $36 billion to provide loans, research funds and seed money to promising clean energy technologies. The effort had also been intended to help lift the country to its feet -- a philosophy that has been championed by supporters and lampooned by opponents.

For example, Secretary Chu is especially proud of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funnels money to those projects that have huge risks but that also have an enormous potential payback. The agency was created during the Bush II tenure but didn’t receive any funding until 2009. Chu says that 11 of the program’s companies that were provided $40 million have attracted $200 million in private investments.

Two examples: The “SunShot” program that seeks to revitalize the rooftop solar industry and the “EV Everywhere Challenge” that is trying to advance electric vehicles and their internal batteries. Along those lines, he says that rooftop solar systems have doubled over four years and now total more 1,800 megawatts. Meantime, he says that in the last year, wind energy has accounted for 42 percent of all new energy capacity in the United States. 


Discrediting his Ideas

Those programs are replete with critics, who maintain that the U.S. government has played favorites with the people’s money. Those same skeptics point to the failure of Solyndra, a solar manufacturer that borrowed $528 million and that lost the whole thing.

“GDP growth in the United States has limped along at the anemic annual rate of 0.6 percent while China’s economy has soared at the annual rate of 9.12 percent, more than 15 times our own,” says Daniel Kish, senior VP with the Institute for Energy Research. “Clearly, the policies and priorities of Steven Chu’s energy department have benefitted our global competitors and intensified the economic pain felt by millions of unemployed Americans.”

Secretary Chu responds by saying that the loan guarantees have gone to 33 clean energy businesses. Those investments have supported 60,000 new jobs and generated $55 billion in economic investment. The deals that have failed include not just Solyndra but also Abound Solar, Evergreen and SpectraWatt.

“While critics try hard to discredit the program, the truth is that only one percent of of the companies we funded went bankrupt,” says Chu. “That one percent has gotten more attention than the 99 percent that have not. The test for America’s policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for many successes.”



The Obama administration, meantime, is also supporting loan guarantees to the nuclear industry and federal grants for advanced coal generation. With regard to nuclear energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency approved licenses for the first time in 30 years to build four reactors in two different locations: Georgia and South Carolina. It is also awarding $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to the two in Georgia, which is for Southern Co. and its partners. 



Climate Controversy

Similarly, the White House is allocating $3.4 billion to carbon capture and sequestration efforts. Chu says that as many as 10 projects could be commercialized within a decade and that prices would only rise 10-20 percent because of it. At the same time, the Secretary Chu has advocated for policies to limit carbon emissions, pointing to the multitude of natural disasters that have taken place and the high, uninsured costs of those events.

“The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has had a significant and likely role in climate change,” he says, adding that even China and India have accepted those findings.

Chu’s announcement is not a surprise and it comes just weeks after two other key energy-related players have said that they, too, will move on: Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Interior Secretary Ken Salizar. As to whom may replace Chu, some rumblings are centering on Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and former Google exec Dan Reicher.

Scholars are not often adept at politics. But Secretary Chu has learned the ropes, advocating for what he believes but within the confines of an administration that must find workable solutions. Chu, nevertheless, will leave Washington the same way in which entered it -- with a commitment to science and how such fundamentals can be used to advance new, clean energy technologies.


EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

energybizinsider@energycentral.com

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Comments

Consensus is not proof

There were several quotes that struck me in it:

When Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the Nobel prize-winning scientist, accepted President Obama’s offer in 2008 to lead the federal agency, he said that science would be his guidepost.

‘“In the scientific world, people are judged by the content of their ideas,” writes Secretary Chu, in a lengthy letter. “Advances are made with new insights, but the final arbitrator of any point of view are experiments that seek the unbiased truth, not the information cherry picked to support a particular point of view.”’

‘Secretary Chu has advocated for policies to limit carbon emissions, pointing to the multitude of natural disasters that have taken place and the high, uninsured costs of those events.’

‘“The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has had a significant and likely role in climate change,” he says, adding that even China and India have accepted those findings.’

This is the crux of the matter.  Consensus is not proof.  Climate Models aren’t facts, only representations of what has been observed.

When will the scientific method be applied?  We know the earth is getting warmer because we have the records.  Surely we have measurements of the output from the sun for at least the last 20 years since we realized we weren’t slipping back into another ‘ice age.’

Dr. Chu needs to be consistent, as does everyone in the business of ‘science.’
 
Thanks for hearing me out and keep up the good work.
David McGee

I am amazed that this article

I am amazed that this article would include such a demonstrably invalid statement as that by Daniel Kish:  “GDP growth in the United States has limped along at the anemic annual rate of 0.6 percent while China’s economy has soared at the annual rate of 9.12 percent, more than 15 times our own,” ... “Clearly, the policies and priorities of Steven Chu’s energy department have benefitted our global competitors and intensified the economic pain felt by millions of unemployed Americans.”

Two aspects of this statement demand rebuttal.  First, while China's economy has grown at a tremendous pace, both the fossil fuel industry and the renewable energy industry along with other green industries have been the engine of that anemic growth in the US.  The administration policies have expanded both oil and gas production and renewable energy production to record highs and these have each created tens of thousands of jobs.  Mr. Kish also conveniently ignores the fact that the Chinese are installing not only new coal plants, but wind and solar generation capacity at a faster pace than any where else in the world.  So on both accounts, Mr. Kishes claims are completely unjustified. 

Chinese wind and solar

According to US EIA worldwide figures, China built from 2006 to 2010 (the last year in the table), 0.81GW of solar and tidal, 28.5GW of wind, 2.9GW of nuclear, 90.4GW of hydro, 222.5GW of thermal generation (predominantly coal).  Their total generating capacity grew from 631.4GW to 988GW with 62% being coal, 25% hydro, only 8% wind.  Now one may argue that hydro power is green but I don't think the innundated areas would agree if they could talk.

The oil and gas production increase in the US has been on primarily private lands rather than public lands so I rather doubt the present administration's policies had anything to do with expanding that--in fact their actual and defacto moratoriums have adversely impacted what may have been an even large expansion of oil & gas. 

the same tired arguments

If the commenter is dismayed by the impact of wind turbines on the landscape, he/she ought to be outraged by the coal mining industry. Point is, every fuel / generation technology has its advantages and disadvantages.

The Solyndra reference is also meaningless.  They got clobbered by state-subsidized panels form China, end of story.  Their production line was booked solid for two years when they started work on a second fabrication facility--does that sound like a fly-by-night operation?  Never mind that DoE's track record with stimulus investments would be the envy of any private equity firm.

Not the view I was commenting on

My concerns about the impact of wind turbines on the "landscape" has to do with the destruction of forested areas on ridgelines and along transmission rights of way to bring remote wind power to load centers.  The coal mining industry, last I checked, is required to restore mined areas but I have heard squat about renovating windfarm locations when abandoned.  Since a wind turbine requires about 110 cubic meters of reinforced concrete foundation per rated MW, removal of the old foundations will be an interesting enterprise.  I had a responder in the past say the wind industry will replace the older turbines with new, higher power ones that will fit the foundations as time goes by--only thing is, one cannot put a 5MW wind turbine on a 2.5MW turbine foundation and expect the combination to work.  Then there are avian kills to worry about with wind turbines and the ecological alteration of regions of land due to utiltiy scale solar farms.  Also, keep in mind that the so-called federal lands were taken over from the various states to preserve the "pristine conditions" thus denying the states the opportunity to use their own lands as they saw fit while the feds are using the land as they see fit.

As for Solyndra, the reason it did not get the loan originally was that the company was judged to be a poor financial risk yet the present administration rushed the loan through AND SUBORDINATED THE FEDERAL LOAN to private investors.  I also read, but am not certain of the veracity of the article, that the private investors in Solyndra were allowed to take their investment tax credits an apply them to other businesses that had nothing to do with Solyndra or "green" energy.

Meanwhile China is taking the lead in advanced coal-fired power

I talked with a Chinese national who was heavily involved in the Chinese power industry until late last year.  China's policy when building new coal-fired power is that all new facilities must be either supercritical or ultra-supercritical and must be sized not only to meet new demand but to also shutdown existing conventional coal-fired capacity equal to half of the capacity of the new facility.  If I remember the number correctly, China starts up the equivalent of 900MW of new coal-fired power weekly so it is shuttering 450MW of legacy power weekly.  The new facility replaces the power of the old facility with a reduction of roughly 40% in CO2/MWh.  My source said China is also requiring SO2 scrubbing and requiring provisions for adding NOx mitigation later but has no plans for CCS.

So, while we are making it impossible to build new coal-fired power with the EPA's CO2 rules and coming up with others that will effectively shutdown many coal-fired plants across the nation, China is busy modernizing their coal-fired fleet while reducing CO2/MWh, SOx emissions, and later NOx emissions.  While we are busy pumping billions into windfarms and utility scale solar with lousy availability that also, in the case of wind turbines, drive up the costs of construction materials due to their poor MWh/ton of concrete, steel and copper (not to mention rare earth materials) and, in the case of both, alter the ecology of wilderness areas, China is progressing along on a policy that will modernize their power grid with new coal, nuclear, and hydro power that will deliver reliable, round-the-clock availability and reliability with a lot lower $/MWh than wind and solar ever will while decreasing CO2/SOx/NOx per MWh.  While we are busy throwing away money on firms that do not use it wisely (remember the variable transparency conference room wall at Solyndra) and erodes our tax base with PTCs and cash-in-lieu grants, China is taking the lead in electrical generation technologies that can supply both base and peak load power.