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.


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)


Karen Pease

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: 319-337-8815