Chu confirmed as Secretary of Energy

by Kathleen Davis, senior editor

The Senate confirmed Steven Chu, President Obama’s choice for secretary of energy, on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. The voice vote was unanimous for Chu and six other cabinet positions.

Chu waded through his confirmation hearing for the position January 13, weathering questions from Capitol Hill about his commitments, values and plans when it comes to America’s energy policy.

Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee grilled Chu about a past comment labeling coal his “worst nightmare.” Chu noted that, if the world continues to use coal as it does today, we could all, globally, be a very bad situation — especially given the increasing use of the fuel in Russia, China and India. Chu noted, however, that he favors a look at companion technology to make coal cleaner rather than calling for the end of the coal era.

Keeping coal in the energy equation may be a traditional move, but Chu did push the idea of change in his remarks, even if that change may be a bit less dramatic than some critics expected with this new administration.

“It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren,” he told the committee during the discussion of climate change.

Chu additionally pushed for a loan guarantee policy for nuclear energy, hoped for a place to store nuclear waste safely, revealed a commitment for cap-and-trade for greenhouse gases and cleaner energy in general, and promised to look at the possibilities of domestic oil exploration — though he chided a senator for pushing him to say he’d open shorelines to drilling. Instead, he noted that the U.S. had only a fraction of the world’s oil supply and stated that the “more efficient use of energy in the United States is the biggest factor that can reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

Energy efficiency was the theme of Chu’s hearing. “This, in my mind, is the lowest hanging fruit,” he told the gathered senators.

Chu shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997 for figuring out how to trap and manipulate an atom. (The recipe: Chill the atom to near absolute zero. This slows it down enough to allow a laser light to grab it.)

The son of Chinese immigrants, Chu was born in 1948. A favorite science teacher in high school put him on the physics path, and he majored in mathematics and physics at Rochester. He moved on to Berkeley for graduate school and joined Bell Laboratories in 1978. There, from 1978-1987, he participated in the work that led to his ’97 Nobel.

In 1983, Chu snagged the top spot in the quantum electronics research department at Bell. He also chaired the physics department at Stanford and taught physics and molecular biology and Berkeley.

Chu became director at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004. His programs there centering on energy efficient buildings, the monitoring of greenhouse gases and battery storage, according to laboratory spokespeople.

According to a reader poll on the Utility Automation & Engineering T&D Web site, 36 percent of respondents found the choice of Steven Chu as “scary,” due to his previous focus on renewable energy and expected push for that during his administration. Thirty percent of poll respondents found the choice “unusual, but intriguing” and 25 percent found it “bizarre” since Chu has little to no industry experience. (The poll claims no scientific accuracy. Feel free to cast your own vote on the Chu choice on our home page

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