Energy Secretary Is Resigning After 4 Years Focused on Clean Technologies

Source: By Mathew Wald, New York Times • Posted: Monday, February 4, 2013

Stephen Crowley/The New York TimesEnergy Secretary Steven Chu at the White House on Friday.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu will step down soon, possibly by the end of the month, he said in a statement on Friday, ending a four-year tenure in which he concentrated on fostering research and development of clean energy technologies, and opponents pilloried him over stimulus loans that went bad.

His departure will add to a constellation of vacancies at the top of related agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Transportation Department and the Interior Department.

President Obama said in a statement that Dr. Chu “brought to the Energy Department a unique understanding of both the urgent challenge presented by climate change and the tremendous opportunity that clean energy represents for our economy.” He praised Dr. Chu for expanded support of research into “groundbreaking innovations that could transform our energy future.”

Dr. Chu presided over a surge in expenditures in which the Obama administration tried to use the Energy Department to stimulate the economy and advance both energy efficiency and clean energy production. Dr. Chu said that some of the money would be used to “swing for the fences,” promoting a variety of ventures, of which some were certain to fail. But the successes would more than compensate for the failures, he said, especially in research and development, where breakthroughs could nurture new industries.

As expected, some of the research has failed, and much remains a work in progress. One of the manufacturing failures was Solyndra, a company with an innovative design for solar cells that got a $535 million loan guarantee but built a product too expensive for the market.

“He was given the thankless task of spending $40 billion on energy technology very quickly at a department with little existing capacity to do so productively, so it’s something of a miracle there weren’t more Solyndras,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy aide in the Clinton White House. Mr. Bledsoe praised Dr. Chu’s focus on the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, known as Arpa-e, an energy version of the better-known Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, offered a more critical assessment of the administration’s approach to new technologies. “I found taxpayer losses on projects like Solyndra and the department’s deeply misguided effort to use taxpayer dollars as an investment bank for unproven technologies to be the most problematic aspects of his legacy,” he said. The next energy secretary, he said, should focus on “removing barriers for the safe use of proven technologies.”

The commercial verdict on the department’s investments may not be delivered for years to come. The initial outlook for the Obama administration’s wind and sun programs has been dimmed by the success of an Energy Department initiative of the 1990s: the development of a method for drilling horizontally in shale formations and fracturing the rock to liberate natural gas, known as fracking, which cut the price of fossil energy just as renewable technologies appeared poised to reach price parity

Dr. Chu, a physicist, was the first cabinet secretary to come into office with a Nobel Prize (an honor he shared in 1997 for his work with supercooled atoms) and was the first scientist to lead the department. His 14 predecessors as secretary included a dentist, an admiral from the nuclear Navy, a former electric utility lobbyist and a variety of political figures.

Several people have been mentioned as potential replacements: Christine O. Gregoire, a former governor and attorney general of Washington State, who once sued the Energy Department to force a cleanup of nuclear waste, and whom Dr. Chu mentioned in his departure announcement; Dan Reicher, an assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration; and Ashton B. Carter, a deputy secretary of defense, whose prior experience is well suited to the department’s main mission, the management of nuclear weapons. But it is not clear if the White House would move him from the Defense Department.

Dr. Chu had the political skills to manage the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its 4,000 employees before being chosen by Mr. Obama, but he also showed a physicist’s penchant for speaking the truth plainly.

In September 2008, before Mr. Obama was elected, Mr. Chu told The Wall Street Journal, “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” a statement that Republicans in Congress used to criticize him. Three months earlier, in a lecture he gave in Washington on energy, he said that new houses could be made energy efficient with an investment of $1,000, “but the American consumer would rather have a granite countertop.”

His science focus was still clear after four years on the job. On Thursday, speaking to reporters at the Washington Auto Show, he was asked whether sequestration, the across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take place in March, would interrupt progress on energy problems. He replied by describing how it would still be necessary to sequester carbon dioxide from power plants.

When the questioner clarified that the issue was not carbon capture and sequestration, but sequestration of federal money, he smiled and responded, “See what a nerd I am?”