February 5, 2013

Steven Chu’s DOE Legacy: Big Science, Grand Challenges and Solyndra

Nicole Hemsoth

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu oversaw the nation’s energy policy at one of the most politically divisive times in recent history. Last Friday he announced that he would step down from the job. As a big champion of Big Science and its potential to change the country’s economic and environmental landscape – with government aid – many people welcome the change while others are sad to see him go.

Both views are based on one fact: During his four-year term, Chu emphasized the role of science and technology funding in national innovation and competitiveness.

In many people’s view, his greatest achievement was bringing science back to the forefront of energy policy after years of neglect under previous administrations.

To others, his decision to provide $535 million in federal loan guarantees to Solyndra, a solar energy company that later went bankrupt, makes him the poster child for government misspending. 

A physics professor, Nobel Prize winner, and Bell Labs investigator, Chu has always been a huge proponent of the transformative power of research.

President Obama praised Chu for his efforts to bring about that transformation. “Over the past four years we have doubled the use of renewable energy, reduced our dependence on foreign oil and put our country on a path to win the global race for clean-energy jobs,” the president said.

Chu pushed the idea that high performance computing should play a key role in overcoming today’s difficult energy challenges. As head of the DOE, he was responsible for some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. DOE’s Office of Science makes supercomputers available to researchers who use them to simulate everything from the components of a proton to the mechanisms of an exploding star. At a 2010 summit in Washington, D.C., he asserted that the “the DOE strategy should be to make simulation part of everyone’s toolbox.”

In 1997, Chu, along with several Bell Lab colleagues, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on laser cooling. An article at Quartz by Steve LeVine examines how Chu set out to recreate the prolific Bell Laboratory model in Washington using focused funding streams and strategic innovation centers.

Chu’s approach was multi-pronged. First, he created 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), funded at $2-5 million per year per center for an initial five-year year. These integrated, multi-investigator centers, operated by the DOE Office of Science, target “grand challenge” problems in order to transform “the way we generate, supply, transmit, store, and use energy.”

“The EFRCs neatly fit the Bell mantra,” writes LeVine. “Give a group of talented scientists a specific objective, the freedom to solve it how they see fit, a reasonable sum to work with, and let them go to the task. They might fail spectacularly, but Bell thought that was also how they may succeed.”

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The second piece of Chu’s plan was to establish five Energy Innovation Hubs, each of which receive up to $125 million in funding over five years. Their mission, according to the DOE, is “to shorten the path from laboratory innovation to technological development, and lead the way toward American competitiveness, economic growth and energy security.” Researchers from different labs are simulating nuclear reactors, developing biofuels from sunlight, designing energy efficient buildings, advancing electrochemical energy storage, and enhancing the supply of critical energy materials.

Chu also oversaw the development of Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a DOE incubator project that was modeled after the Defense Department’s DARPA program. As Chu explains, “ARPA-E was designed to support high-risk, high reward technology development; to swing for game-changing home runs that can fundamentally transform energy technologies.”

Many people in science and industry have praised the program. In his ARPA-E Summit Keynote, FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith characterized it as “the best government funding program” he had ever seen.

But not everybody was so happy with Chu’s approach to government/industry collaboration. Republicans launched withering attacks against his handling of the Solyndra loan program after the solar panel maker and four other government-funded energy companies went belly-up on his watch. Some of the comments upon his resignation have not been so kind. 

“While many will remember Secretary Chu for his comments about the need to raise gas prices on American consumers and the high grades he publicly bestowed on himself,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa in a statement, “I found taxpayer losses on projects like Solyndra and the department’s deeply misguided effort to use taxpayer dollars as an investment bank for unproven technologies to be the most problematic aspects of his legacy.”

Chu takes responsibility for these “failures” in his resignation letter, but insists there is a larger context. Innovation, he says, requires risk:

The test for America’s policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for many successes. America’s entrepreneurs and innovators who are leaders in global clean energy race understand that not every risk can – or should – be avoided. Michelangelo said, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

It’s true the research beds that Chu established are still in their early years, but he believes that they will give life to the same kind of game-changing advances associated with Bell Labs and other legendary institutions. “Some of those goals have been realized, and we have planted many seeds together,” he said in his resignation letter. “Just as today’s boom in shale gas production was made possible by Department of Energy research from 1978 to 1991, some of [our] most significant work may not be known for decades. What matters is that our country will reap the benefits of what we have started.”

His final legacy will have to wait for those decades to pass and demonstrate whether or not his words prove true.


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