As Obama's Energy Chief, Steven Chu Likely to Shift Agency's Focus to Renewables

The Nobel Prize-winning scientist has championed research into energy efficiency and solar power.

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Interactive: Obama Transition 2009

When Steven Chu, named by Barack Obama to be his energy chief, arrived at California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004 to take over as lab director, he had a plan for his new colleagues: focus their research on pressing energy issues, particularly climate change.

"Steve said, 'Let's apply some of our skills to problems of importance to society,' " says physicist James Siegrist, the lab's associate director for general sciences. "He's taken chemists, material scientists, environmental guys, and tech guys and really focused them, redirected them, on national energy problems."

On Monday, President-elect Obama formally announced Chu, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997, as his pick for secretary of energy. Obama praised Chu as "uniquely suited" for the role, saying he would ask Chu to play a lead part in a "sustained, all-hands-on-deck effort" to address energy problems.

Chu's record at Berkeley, with several new initiatives on renewable energy to his credit, offers insight into the types of ideas he advocates and the policies he might pursue as secretary.

Just as telling, however, is the vision Obama appears to have in mind for the U.S. Department of Energy. Historically, most of DOE's funding has been spent on nuclear weaponry and waste cleanup. Obama, with his promise to spend $150 billion on alternative energy over 10 years, seems to have something different in mind—as does Chu.

At Berkeley, colleagues say, Chu has aggressively promoted research on advanced biofuels, solar power, and energy efficiency. He has successfully, and often shrewdly, fought for funding from the federal government as well as from private industry, most notably in his wooing, last year, of a $500 million partnership with oil giant BP for alternative energy research. As Chu sees it, a handful of hard-won breakthroughs—with photovoltaic cells for solar power, for instance—could be game-changers for the country's energy portfolio.

At Monday's press conference, Chu and Obama spoke of their interest in energy research and development. Chu said he hoped the DOE would be "a major force" in these efforts. Such a role, in practice, would be a change in direction. In its 2008 budget, DOE requested about $1.2 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs and about $4.4 billion for scientific research. By contrast, it asked for $9.4 billion for national security, mainly weaponry programs, and more than $6 billion for environmental management and waste cleanup.

Chu knows a few things about funding. As lab director, he garnered the two largest grants awarded in the United States in recent memory for advanced biofuels research. One is a $125 million DOE grant that sets up a Joint BioEnergy Institute among several institutions, including the University of California-Berkeley, with a goal of developing plants that can more easily be converted into biofuels. The other, announced last year, is the half-a-billion-dollar deal with BP, effectively creating the world's largest public-private research partnership on energy matters.

Colleagues say Chu's success at the lab owes much to his collaborative, well-defined goals. "When Steve arrived, he was engaged in trying to bring the very best scientists, many of whom were not working on energy-related topics, together and get them involved with the really important energy problems of the day," says Paul Alivisatos, the lab's deputy director. "That's a very energizing vision. It gets a lot of the scientists at the lab motivated."

In some ways, Chu's leadership suggests what he may try to do, on a large scale, as energy secretary. When Chu won his Nobel Prize in 1997, it was for his pioneering work on cooling and trapping atoms with lasers. At the lab, he focused his efforts on achieving technological breakthroughs for biofuels and solar power to make new energy forms less costly. "We know that solar technology doesn't quite have the ability to be economically competitive without subsidies," Alivisatos says. "But if we work smart, if we organize correctly and bring a team of researchers together, there is a way we could achieve that in a reasonable amount of time."