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Steven Chu Packs It In

Cabinet: Secretary of Energy announces he will return to academia

by Jeff Johnson
February 7, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 6

Credit: Erik Lesser/EPA/Newscom
Chu speaks a year ago at the Vogtle nuclear power plant where a $14 billion addition is planned with $8.3 billion in federal aid.
This is a photo of Steven Chu speaking at the Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Georgia on February 15, 2012.
Credit: Erik Lesser/EPA/Newscom
Chu speaks a year ago at the Vogtle nuclear power plant where a $14 billion addition is planned with $8.3 billion in federal aid.

“The greatest privilege of my life” was how Steven Chu described his four years as secretary of the Department of Energy—when he announced his resignation from the job on Feb. 1. Chu said he will stay for another month and then return to California and an unspecified academic position.

In a letter to DOE employees, Chu enumerated what he viewed as his successes at the department. First is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Although it was created before Chu’s arrival, he developed ARPA-E into a mature effort that has funded the development of nearly 200 high-potential, high-risk energy-related technologies.

Another achievement Chu singled out is his effort to spend nearly $36 billion of American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds—the stimulus—to aid noncarbon energy technologies.

Chu led DOE during a fractious period in which he was under frequent attack by the fossil-fuel industry and its allies in Congress for his position that climate change is real, human-caused, and a problem that requires government action.

Responses to Chu’s resignation reflect the divide of opinion he often faced in the Washington, D.C., political scene. For example, Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.) called Chu’s support for unproven technologies related to alternative energy misguided and problematic. Issa is chair of the House of Representatives Oversight & Government Reform Committee that conducted several investigations of Chu and DOE.

On the other hand, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an influential environmental advocacy group, applauded Chu for doubling U.S. use of wind and solar energy and for setting the country on a “path toward energy independence that doesn’t keep us shackled to fossil fuels.”

Unlike previous energy secretaries, who were often more steeped in politics and came to the position late in their career or during a transition, Chu was cut from a different cloth. He came from a strong background in scientific research—he was the 1997 Nobel Laureate in Physics for his work on methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light and had been director of DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is a longtime advocate for increased funding for basic research.

A nominee to replace Chu has not been announced.



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