Thursday, December 11, 2008

Obama Picks Stephen Chu to Lead Energy Department

Barack Obama made public yesterday his intentions to appoint Dr. Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as Secretary of Energy.

Dr. Chu, a Nobel laureate clean energy expert, is well known for turning the Berkeley Lab into a center of clean energy and efficiency innovation, forging the Berkeley Lab-British Petroleum partnership, sitting on the Copenhagen Climate Council, and winning a Nobel Prize in physics in 1997. His appointment is probably most notable for the sharp contrast between the capable, knowledgeable academic and the past military officers, oil industry consultants and utilities executives who have served in the position.

Last year, Chu was the co-chair of an InterAcademic Council Paper entitled Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future. The report proposes "best practices for a global transition to a clean, affordable and sustainable energy supply in both developing and developed countries," focusing on policies to support the development and deployment of technologies "that can transform the landscape of energy supply and demand around the globe." If Lighting the Way is reflective of Chu's understanding of the energy challenge, he clearly sees it as a technology-driven global development challenge, a good sign that Chu is the right pick to head up DOE and it's many energy RD&D programs.

Speaking at this summer's National Clean Energy Summit convened by Senator Harry Reid, Dr. Chu also evidences a keen understanding of the potentials of energy efficiency and the need for breakthrough renewable energy technologies. "Another myth is [that] we have all the technologies we need to solve the energy challenge. It's only a matter of political will," he says. "I think political will is absolutely necessary... but we need new technologies to transform the [energy] landscape." He then goes on to discuss the work on breakthrough solar and biomass technologies pursued under his leadership by LBNL's new Helios Project.

Coming, as he does, from within the National Labs system itself, it will be interesting to see if Chu will advocate the sweeping reforms to America's energy technology innovation system we need. It's also unclear if Chu's academic acumen will translate well to a more political stage. But what does seem to be clear is that in Dr. Chu, Obama has found an able technologist with a keen grasp on both the technical and political challenges of creating a new global energy economy.

Obama has also announced intentions to name Carol Browner, former EPA Administrator and current transition team advisor for energy and environment, as the administration's new "Energy and Climate Czar," and former New Jersey Environmental Commissioner Lisa Jackson to run the Environmental Protection Agency.

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