Steven Chu, Obama's Point Man on Energy, Says Conservation Is 'Sexy'

The nation's new energy secretary is pushing for the next breakthroughs, along with energy efficiency.

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What's limiting these gains?

There are initial investment barriers. And this is where, for example, in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a lot of the money is being targeted. But we want to also be looking systemically [at] how to do this. How so?

Say you're building a new home. McKinsey has done a study that says for $1,000 extra in material and labor, that investment could pay for itself in one and a half years, and you could save a tremendous amount of energy. In terms of new homes and buildings, part of it is regulatory. But you've also got to convince people—they've got to believe in their heart and soul—that a small, minor upfront cost will actually decrease their monthly bill. What about older homes and existing buildings?

If you're in an older home with these older, leaky windows, it could cost a lot of money to replace those. So we need more creative ways of allowing one to finance the replacement of the leaky doors and windows. It could be a loan from a city; it could be a loan that ends up being built into the tax base of a home, so that over a 20-year period, the taxes are incrementally higher. What we really care about is that your monthly bills are the same or lower, and saving energy. What can you do to make sure this happens?

I think one of the things the Department of Energy has to do is educational. You have to make sure, when people plunk down this kind of money, that it's going to things that truly will bring their overall housing expenses down. I'm all for solar photovoltaics on roofs. But it could make more sense to plug up leaky windows than investing in solar photovoltaic generation on your roof. Before taking this job, you ran Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. What role do you envision for the national labs?

If you think about one of the real bedrock strengths in the U.S. today, we have undoubtedly the best research university system in the world. We have an incredible—I think also the best—national lab system in the world that generates a lot of terrific research. In terms of the way we use and generate energy today and where we'd like to go, one would like to couple as best as one can all this intellectual horsepower into solving our energy problems. I would say this is arguably one of the major issues science and technology has to solve. READ ABOUT THE NEXT OF THE TOP EIGHT WASHINGTON PLAYERS ON ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT.