Steven “Coal is My Worst Nightmare” Chu: Obama’s Energy Secretary Shows Deep Understanding of Biggest Issues of Our Time

 

Steven ChuIt’s been widely reported that President-elect Obama is preparing to announce his selection of Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu to serve as his Secretary of Energy. The pick has been hailed by environmental groups, scientists, and even Chinese newspapers. Indeed, looking over one of his old lectures, you can get a good sense of what we have to look forward to under his tenure.





Chu is a Professor of Physics and Molecular and Cellular Biology of University of California, Berkeley and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for his work on laser cooling and trapping of atoms. Most of his recent work has been concerned with the energy crisis, covering all aspects from generation to transmission and storage to consumption of electricity, as well as transportation issues.

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Much of the new coverage of his work has focused on two aspects — his statements that coal power is “his worst nightmare”, and that he is supportive of nuclear power. But a look at a seminar given by him in January of ’08 reveals a much broader area of focus and a tremendous level of understanding of the issues at hand.

Chu’s seminar opens with the severity of the global climate crisis. On this issue, his talks are often called gloomy, and the seminar fails to disappoint. It covers general aspects, such as property loss from sea level rise and increased risk of storms and wildfires, but also delves into the lesser known. Continuing at our present emissions course, he notes, would lead to California having 5 to 7 times the heat-wave mortality, the loss of 75-90% of alpine/subalpine forests, and 73-90% of the Sierra snowpack. The forest loss issue is portrayed dramatically with a photo of an endless forest of dead pines in British Columbia, killed by bark beetles that now survive there due to the milder winters. The graphics of snowpack loss are equally dire.

After a brief discussion of building efficiency and how smart regulations have kept California’s electricity consumption growth nearly flat, he delves into energy supply, noting right away that without both energy storage and efficient transmission, intermittent renewables cannot make up more than 30% of the grid. He then discusses enhanced geothermal (EGS), its problems (mineral plugging of the reservoir, power requirements for circulating the water, etc), and potential solutions (such as using carbon dioxide as a working fluid). For intermittent sources, he lays out the case for the huge potential capacity of electric vehicles to store charge and even talks about how to prevent dendrites from rupturing membranes in lithium-ion batteries.

Biofuels are next up, and he lays the situation bare. While only 0.2-0.3% of the planet’s arable land would be needed for solar power, biofuels have a much tougher battle. Nonetheless, he points out, ethanol from 50 million acres of cellulosic energy crops, plus agricultural waste, can replace half of all US gasoline consumption. Helios’s work with direct solar synthesis of fuels is covered next — first direct solar splitting of water to create H2, and then the turning of carbon dioxide to methanol via water, sunlight and a nickel/iron/manganese catalyst.

On the topic of wind power, Chu the stresses importance of modest but stable incentives to stimulate long-term development. He strongly endorses the use of HVDC to transfer windpower across the nation, pointing out how it takes less material and loses less energy in the process.

Chu’s style is often to “geek out”. In typical fashion while discussing cellulosic ethanol, he includes a picture of a termite using “cellulases and hemicellulases” to produce “mono and oligomers”, and so on down the line to demonstrate what we’re trying to recreate. A later diagram discusses how to design bacterial ceullosomes with complementary enzymes to form a single multi-enzyme complex. When discussing solar power, he diagrams “distributed junction nano-solar cells”, showing the exciton diffusion length versus the absorption depth, CdSe nanorods, “Al” and “ITO” electrodes, and “P3HT polymer” thrown in for good measure.

At one point, right before showing a photo of a delicate Earth rising in space that was taken the crew of Apollo 8, Chu quotes Faulkner: “I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” Chu then adds: “With these virtues, the world can and will prevail over this great energy challenge.”

Indeed, we can only hope that he is correct.

Image Credit: Alanmak (licensed under the GFDL v1.2)





About the Author

Karen is a software developer who spends her spare time developing tools to advance green technologies -- EV charger databases, solar power economics calculators, EV/PHEV simulators, etc. She can be reached by email or by phone: karen@rechargeamerica.net 319-337-8815
  • Henry F. Howe

    Purveyors of biofuels and “clean” coal have yet to tell the public that anything that releases carbon into the atmoshphere will contribute to global climate change, which is the greatest single likely threat to civilizations as we know them. That means “biofuels” will always be transitional to something better. Unless technology exists that will capture carbon, coal is no answer. The clean coal people have no technology to justify “clean” – existing technologies release immense amounts of carbon. It’s basically either a promise without basis or hoax.

    I can see no problem with nuclear power if some way can be found to re-process or safely store spent fuel – for millenia. This would help the climate change issue, but creates its own huge problems if nuclear power increases a lot with some way of handling waste.

    McCain ridiculed this anxiety about nuclear waste, citing Navy use of muclear fuel in submarines and so forth. That is a miniscule waste issue, compared with whole cites powered by nuclear energy. Evidently he and advisors have trouble with arithemetic and issues of scale.

  • Henry F. Howe

    Purveyors of biofuels and “clean” coal have yet to tell the public that anything that releases carbon into the atmoshphere will contribute to global climate change, which is the greatest single likely threat to civilizations as we know them. That means “biofuels” will always be transitional to something better. Unless technology exists that will capture carbon, coal is no answer. The clean coal people have no technology to justify “clean” – existing technologies release immense amounts of carbon. It’s basically either a promise without basis or hoax.

    I can see no problem with nuclear power if some way can be found to re-process or safely store spent fuel – for millenia. This would help the climate change issue, but creates its own huge problems if nuclear power increases a lot with some way of handling waste.

    McCain ridiculed this anxiety about nuclear waste, citing Navy use of muclear fuel in submarines and so forth. That is a miniscule waste issue, compared with whole cites powered by nuclear energy. Evidently he and advisors have trouble with arithemetic and issues of scale.

  • Nick Chambers

    Henry,

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again, and again, apparently):

    Biofuels are made from plants/algae that grow. In the act of growing, these plants and algae use carbon (and in some case nitrogen) from the atmosphere, and nutrients from the soil/water to build various parts. By doing this they remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

    What this means is that, even in the case of corn ethanol (which is certainly a less-than-optimal biofuel) there is a neutral to slightly negative carbon balance (meaning more carbon is stored in the soil than released from burning). In the case of second generation biofuels like cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass or miscanthus, the amount of carbon stored in the roots of plant underground is much much larger than the amount of carbon released by burning the fuel made from the plant material at the surface.

    What this means is that, at the very worst, the biofuels loop is a closed one and there is no contribution to overall greenhouse gases, and, optimally, at the very best, the use of biofuels actually reduces the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

  • ChuckL

    Dr. Chu’s final paragraph is hopeful, but his push for ethanol is frightening, if for no other reason than the inefficiency of ethanol as a motor fuel. It is about 60% as good as gasoline.

    There is also no mention of the University of New Hampshire’s study of biodiesel fuel from algae. (possible scholastic jealousy?) Not only is the carbon in biodiesel from algae simply recycled as Nick has indicated, in the process of growing, the algae give off oxygen. The UNH stydy indicates that by using only 20% of the available and suitable but unused land for algae growth, we could supply all of our liquid fuel needs. They didn’t say, but it seems that if we used 50% of the land, we could replace OPEC.

    I am glad that Dr. Chu is optimistic, but his nearsighted tunnel vision scares me. He does however fit with Obama’s idea of choosing a solution and forcing it through with massive government subsidies. A better way of providing these subsidies would be to grant a tax exemption for development of alternative energy or an efficient way to use intermittent energy such as solar, or wind. The tax exemption would be the subsidy, at no cost to taxpayers, and would allow the entrepreneur to choose the technology that provides the desired result, including a profit. We would still get the payroll taxes, and the jobs would be real not make work.

  • ChuckL

    Dr. Chu’s final paragraph is hopeful, but his push for ethanol is frightening, if for no other reason than the inefficiency of ethanol as a motor fuel. It is about 60% as good as gasoline.

    There is also no mention of the University of New Hampshire’s study of biodiesel fuel from algae. (possible scholastic jealousy?) Not only is the carbon in biodiesel from algae simply recycled as Nick has indicated, in the process of growing, the algae give off oxygen. The UNH stydy indicates that by using only 20% of the available and suitable but unused land for algae growth, we could supply all of our liquid fuel needs. They didn’t say, but it seems that if we used 50% of the land, we could replace OPEC.

    I am glad that Dr. Chu is optimistic, but his nearsighted tunnel vision scares me. He does however fit with Obama’s idea of choosing a solution and forcing it through with massive government subsidies. A better way of providing these subsidies would be to grant a tax exemption for development of alternative energy or an efficient way to use intermittent energy such as solar, or wind. The tax exemption would be the subsidy, at no cost to taxpayers, and would allow the entrepreneur to choose the technology that provides the desired result, including a profit. We would still get the payroll taxes, and the jobs would be real not make work.

  • Nick Chambers

    ChuckL,

    Engines that run on ethanol are only less efficient if they were originally designed to run on gasoline. If you design an engine to run on ethanol (higher compression ratio and different injectors) it will perform as good as a gasoline engine in terms of efficiency and it will also have a higher horsepower rating.

  • Mark

    Nick, what you are missing is the massive amount of energy that is/will be used to turn the material into a fuel. This more then offsets the savings the plants will yield in their “carbon” footprint.

  • Mark

    Nick, what you are missing is the massive amount of energy that is/will be used to turn the material into a fuel. This more then offsets the savings the plants will yield in their “carbon” footprint.

  • Nick Chambers

    Mark,

    Not true, those estimates take that into consideration. Even if you average all the studies that have been done on this subject into one, cellulosic ethanol and other second gen biofuels are net carbon sinks.

    See:

    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-12/uoia-rcw120208.php

  • I’m a little confused on Dr. Chu’s recomendations. Are there any? I understand no perfect solutions. Biofuels for the most part are carbon neutral or would be if biofuels is used to make power for the processing and growth of the Bio-fuel. What is the negative? Ethanol is been already proven to be a non-solution perhaps a way to help reduce gas consumption but it has been shown by many that we cannot produce enough ethanol and food so choices have to be made. Algae Bio-diesel has a lot of promise but no funding perhaps becasue there is no huge algae bio-diesel lobby in DC to counter ADM and all the growers of ethanol.

    I want us off of imported oil first and then eventually off of buring any kind of Fossil Fuel for transportaton. It will be many years before we can get off of it for electrcity generation especially if everyone starts buying plug in Hybrids. But I would like to see that to. As an engineer and realsit vs a dreamer, I think we can make the forst part of this doable, but it won’t be cheap or painless.

  • I’m a little confused on Dr. Chu’s recomendations. Are there any? I understand no perfect solutions. Biofuels for the most part are carbon neutral or would be if biofuels is used to make power for the processing and growth of the Bio-fuel. What is the negative? Ethanol is been already proven to be a non-solution perhaps a way to help reduce gas consumption but it has been shown by many that we cannot produce enough ethanol and food so choices have to be made. Algae Bio-diesel has a lot of promise but no funding perhaps becasue there is no huge algae bio-diesel lobby in DC to counter ADM and all the growers of ethanol.

    I want us off of imported oil first and then eventually off of buring any kind of Fossil Fuel for transportaton. It will be many years before we can get off of it for electrcity generation especially if everyone starts buying plug in Hybrids. But I would like to see that to. As an engineer and realsit vs a dreamer, I think we can make the forst part of this doable, but it won’t be cheap or painless.

  • LonnieB

    Chuck,

    Having read several of your posts, you strike me as almost ethanol-phobic. Why so? A little research on your part, beyond the myths and disinformation Big Oil propogates, would show you that it is the best, most immediate “bridge” fuel currently available.

    It isn’t imply a question of “miles per gallon”, that is a short-sighted and somewhat selfish perspective. (Sorry, I don’t mean to be insulting.) It is also a question of national security and an environmental issue, as well. It’s unreasonable to think, or expect, the solution to out national energy crisis to be simple and/or painless.

    We inflicted the current pain-at-the-pump on ourselves, as well as the ecological damage to our planet by putting all our energy “eggs” into the petroleum basket. We would be the dictionary definition of “fools” to repeat that same folly.

    Nick is correct about ethanol burning engines. Nearly all automotive technology has it’s origins in racing. Drag racers have used alcohol blends for decades due to it’s superior horsepower potential when used in a purpose built engine. A couple years ago, the Indycar Racing League mandated the exclusive use of E85.

    Those guys should know!

    As far as burning coal goes, there are carbon plants that capture the carbons a coal plant gives off and compresses them into a liquid. This liquid is then injected at tremendous pressures into oil-bearing porous rock, causing the oil to lose it’s grip on the rock, making it soluble and therfore retrievable with existing technology. Canadian oil shale is a very good example of extending the servicable life of an oil field.

    As Nick mentioned, this same captured carbon can be used to feed massive algea farms.

    No, there is no such thing as “clean coal”, but there is such a thing as intelligent management of the waste products.

    Obama pointedly excluded nuclear from his many campaign promises (but somewhat limited energy plan), so Mr. Chu’s apparent acceptance, if not outright support of it, doesn’t entirely mesh with Obama’s lack of vision in this area.

    I have a “fantastic” (meaning fantasy-based) idea for a means of “getting rid” of nuclear waste…..

    NASA should develop a program that has the soul mission of launching unmanned, moderate-sized payloads of nuclear waste directly at the Sun. We routinely launch satillites weighing tons. True, there have been mishaps, but if we had spent as much on advancing this technology as have on Spotted Owls, handout programs, war and illegal immigration, we already have safe reliable launch platforms capable of doing this.

    Of course, that might take funds away from touchy-feely social programs and favorite political pork recipients, so it is unlikely that that will ever happen. It’s so much more politically correct to give illegal aliens free health care and driver’s licenses than it is to advance the technology that just might help save the planet, isn’t it?

  • LonnieB

    Chuck,

    Having read several of your posts, you strike me as almost ethanol-phobic. Why so? A little research on your part, beyond the myths and disinformation Big Oil propogates, would show you that it is the best, most immediate “bridge” fuel currently available.

    It isn’t imply a question of “miles per gallon”, that is a short-sighted and somewhat selfish perspective. (Sorry, I don’t mean to be insulting.) It is also a question of national security and an environmental issue, as well. It’s unreasonable to think, or expect, the solution to out national energy crisis to be simple and/or painless.

    We inflicted the current pain-at-the-pump on ourselves, as well as the ecological damage to our planet by putting all our energy “eggs” into the petroleum basket. We would be the dictionary definition of “fools” to repeat that same folly.

    Nick is correct about ethanol burning engines. Nearly all automotive technology has it’s origins in racing. Drag racers have used alcohol blends for decades due to it’s superior horsepower potential when used in a purpose built engine. A couple years ago, the Indycar Racing League mandated the exclusive use of E85.

    Those guys should know!

    As far as burning coal goes, there are carbon plants that capture the carbons a coal plant gives off and compresses them into a liquid. This liquid is then injected at tremendous pressures into oil-bearing porous rock, causing the oil to lose it’s grip on the rock, making it soluble and therfore retrievable with existing technology. Canadian oil shale is a very good example of extending the servicable life of an oil field.

    As Nick mentioned, this same captured carbon can be used to feed massive algea farms.

    No, there is no such thing as “clean coal”, but there is such a thing as intelligent management of the waste products.

    Obama pointedly excluded nuclear from his many campaign promises (but somewhat limited energy plan), so Mr. Chu’s apparent acceptance, if not outright support of it, doesn’t entirely mesh with Obama’s lack of vision in this area.

    I have a “fantastic” (meaning fantasy-based) idea for a means of “getting rid” of nuclear waste…..

    NASA should develop a program that has the soul mission of launching unmanned, moderate-sized payloads of nuclear waste directly at the Sun. We routinely launch satillites weighing tons. True, there have been mishaps, but if we had spent as much on advancing this technology as have on Spotted Owls, handout programs, war and illegal immigration, we already have safe reliable launch platforms capable of doing this.

    Of course, that might take funds away from touchy-feely social programs and favorite political pork recipients, so it is unlikely that that will ever happen. It’s so much more politically correct to give illegal aliens free health care and driver’s licenses than it is to advance the technology that just might help save the planet, isn’t it?

  • Greg

    “While only 0.2-0.3% of the planet’s arable land would be needed for solar power, …”

    Better yet, solar can use non-arable land.

  • Greg

    “While only 0.2-0.3% of the planet’s arable land would be needed for solar power, …”

    Better yet, solar can use non-arable land.

  • Moira

    I am in support of nuclear energy and I am very supportive of Steven Chu’s plans. I belive that nuclear power is a great solution to much of our energy and petrolium dependency problems. Nuclear power is perfectly safe if care is taken during the process of creating the power, and disposing of the radioactive “Leftovers”.

  • Moira

    I am in support of nuclear energy and I am very supportive of Steven Chu’s plans. I belive that nuclear power is a great solution to much of our energy and petrolium dependency problems. Nuclear power is perfectly safe if care is taken during the process of creating the power, and disposing of the radioactive “Leftovers”.

  • Coal waste was used as fill dirt in Black public housing and neighborhoods and Black housing was constructed near and on top of coal waste dumps and landfills. The death rates from diseases and the life expectancy of Black Americans is largely due to exposure to coal waste. Black Americans have lived the coal nightmare for over a century and still do.

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