Steven Chu made history as the first Asian-American — and the first scientist and Nobel Prize-winner — to head the U.S. Department of Energy. Chu served during Obama’s first term, where he oversaw a $35 billion-plus government investment in clean energy, before returning to work as a physics professor at Stanford. He continues to speak out on the dangers of climate change, and he joins us to talk about his time in Washington, his current work on sustainable energy and the intersection between science and public policy.

Steven Chu, former U.S. secretary of energy, professor of physics and molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Forgive me Professor Chu if this seems a naive question, but why are some people, so afraid of having a nation more like Sweden, Germany who are years ahead of us when it comes to energy efficient homes, cities, and an overall more green lifestyle?

  • BioMeister

    I worked at the DOE under Secretary Chu, and I believe that he will be remembered as one of the least effective Energy Secretaries in history:

    He was scientifically arrogant, and behaved as if his Nobel Prize spanned all human knowledge, rather than a narrow branch of nuclear physics.

    Time and again, DOE’s actual experts sat quietly through meeting where the Secretary fielded every technical question, often superficially or simply incorrectly.

    He played favorites – ARPA-e, Solar, Electric Cars, Nuclear. If you were one of his favorites, you got lots of resources, but also micromanaged. If you were not a favorite, you got ignored and starved for resources.

    In spending the bulk of his time on the science, he essentially ignored two critical roles: MANAGER of a multi-billion-dollar organization, and lead ADVOCATE for that program.

    Steven Chu is a brilliant man, and on a strictly personal level, a nice guy. But he couldn’t seem to grasp that his role at the DOE was supposed to be a LEADER, not a scientific whiz-kid.
    Alex A., Arlington, VA

    • Skip Conrad

      Shows the fallacy of promoting a competent intellectual instead of a competent manager. Did race play a role?

      • BioMeister

        My thought exactly. As a CTO or CSO, he would have been much more useful. I have seen many start-ups fail because one or more of the founders refused to see / admit his or her limitations. It’s better to be VP of R&D for a successful, billion-dollar enterprise than the CEO of a venture that fails at the two-guys-in-a-garage stage, but some people can’t see that, and they can’t accept that they need to bring in management talent from outside at some point..
        As far as race goes, I never saw any indication that was an issue at the DOE. In his dealings with the White House or Congress, I don’t know, because I had very little opportunity to observe those interactions, much less any peek behind the scenes. Personally, I have worked for people of Southeast Asian and South Asian ancestry who were excellent leaders, as well as equally talented women. All three of those groups are reasonably well-represented in the technology world, and seem to me perfectly well-respected as well, at least up to middle-management level. Above that, it’s still pretty much old white guys in most places, technical or otherwise, including government. Sure, we have an African-American President, but across the upper levels of all three branches of government, the video is almost as “monotonous” as the audio 😉

        • Menelvagor

          and many are just sell-outs.

      • Menelvagor

        whatever–now that is unnecessary. if it were an incompetent white man no one question race. what difference does it make–i cant see how an asian face in DOE is that strategic of political move. Not say like a light-skinned black/white man in the white house. DId race play an issue? of course. so what? A lot of white men in power should not be there. The fact that you and biomeister are so bitter about it and even raise the race question make it quite clear where you stand. let it go man. let it go. white people cant have everything. white is not right.

        it would be more strategic to place a brown man or black man in the office–to raise awareness among black and brown communities who tend to be unaware or apathetic when it comes to the environment even tho they are most effected by environmental racism.

  • GiorgioOrwell2nd

    Mr. Chu. You have some explaining to do.

    Why didn’t you advise President Obama to be more honest about the actual situation regarding the rapidly dwindling global supplies of cheap energy. (oil, gas, etc) Obama’s recent statements about the US having a 100 years of natural gas is an absurd exaggeration (probably more like 10 to 20 years, never mind the horrific side effects of fracking on water supplies) given what we know about natural gas fields rapid depletion rates? The myth that we are becoming energy independent might sound good as a sound bite politically, but someone in Mr.s Chu’s previous position who might actually look at the real consumption vs supply rates must know this is an enormous exaggeration if not outright lie. If Mr. Chu is so driven to highlight sustainable energy and climate change, it would probably have helped if we had been a lot more honest with the US public that cheap gas, both natural and fuel for cars is not something in our future. No one takes sustainable energy seriously because they think we’ll have $3 gasoline and practically free natural gas forever.

  • Skip Conrad

    Don’t we have the largest carbon emissions on the planet? After all, we are the 3rd most populous nation on the planet.

    • BioMeister

      With the exception of a few very small countries, USA carbon emissions per capita are the highest in the world. Another important metric is carbon emissions per unit of GDP. On that metric, China’s emissions far exceed those of every other large economy in the world — something like 10 times those of nearby Japan, and even 5 times those of the relatively inefficient USA. Both kinds of excessive consumption must be brought under control

  • GiorgioOrwell2nd

    David Fridley, a former colleague of Professor Chu’s at Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory, had this to say about Professor’s Chu’s inability to speak about the truth on peak oil while in his former politicial position:

    “[Chu] was my boss,” Fridley says. “He knows all about peak oil, but he can’t talk about it. If the government announced that peak oil was threatening our economy, Wall Street would crash. He just can’t say anything about it.”

    Full Interview can be read here:


    • BioMeister

      Peak Oil, while axiomatically true, is irrelevant in the real world, certainly for decades to come. In the USA, we went through Peak Oil almost exactly as Hubbert predicted, began our slide down the slightly-longer-and-higher-than-predicted tail, and then our oil ran out . . . Oh, wait, no, it didn’t run out, it jumped by more than 2 million barrels per day in the space of a couple of years, and it’s still RISING! Peak Oil is only correct if you hold both technology and the definition of “oil” constant. In the real world, technology for finding and recovering oil improves, as does technology for converting hydrocarbons to fuels, allowing us both to find and produce more oil and to expand our definition of oil. Canada (oil sands) and the USA (oil shale (which is not the same as “shale oil,” confusingly) EACH have far more “oil” than Saudi Arabia. True, those resources won’t give us $3/gallon gasoline, but maybe $5/gallon, and $5/gallon won’t dramatically alter the way we behave. Coal and natural gas are both also “oil” under the right conditions. As the Saudi Oil Minister himself said, back in the 1970’s: “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end long before we run out of oil.” We can only hope that it ends before the impacts of climate change wreak truly catastrophic effects on the Earth, largely focused on those least able to afford the costs of adapting to the changes.

      • Menelvagor

        what about severe pollution, and contamination, and wildlife die-offs and environmental injustice–isn’t that catastrophic enough for you. why must we even talk about climate change–the real issue is how pollution effects normal people in everyday life–but that topic is avoided like the plague–its off the table–because its this topic that will actually motivate people to seek justice and change–and that IS NOT what the gov wants.

        The gov being an oligarchy dependent on oil barons and the war machine as well as other behemoths connected to cheap oil and coal.

      • GiorgioOrwell2nd

        If you think $100 a barrel oil is irrelevant to the way our global capital markets are set up and whether they can grow at the required 3% a year that is needed for capitalism to work, then you don’t understand basic modern day capitalist economics at all. It’s not that we are going to run out of oil, it’s that we’ve already run out of cheap oil, and the growing pains with China and our completely stagnant economy are already showing signs of this. The natural gas will not last anywhere near the 30 years you mentioned in a previous comment, they are depleting far, far faster than that. Yes, technology has enabled us to drill a mile under the ocean and drill sideways for natural gas…but it has not made a dent in the price of oil per barrel that our entire economy is dependent on. You might understand climate change, but you clearly do not understand the absolute requirment of our Walmart economy on cheap oil. We’re already seeing the effects of $5 a gallon gasoline on Walmart’s sales…I’m no luddite, but the magic technological solution to this is not around the corner, and using climate change as the argument to shift to renewables/sustainable energy is going exactly nowhere. If Obama doesn’t have the gumption to carry through on real climate change policies and communication, then you should probably stop holding your breath on that one.

  • Tor Valenza

    Sec, Chu. First, thanks for all you did to promote solar during your time as Secretary. Second, while Energy Secretary, you announced that solar PV and hot water would be put on the White House. The White House did finally install the panels, but there’s been very little press about it. Do you know whether the administration/DOE is planning an online educational component about the White House installation? As far as I know, they haven’t even released a press release, although it was briefly mentioned in a weekly video news segment. When Carter put solar thermal on the White House, they made a big deal about it, and I’d love to see the same for this solar PV installation.

  • I’ll be Frank

    So long as China continues to be one big factory and a police state, it will be polluting its environment, its people and our air.

    • Menelvagor

      what it really boils down to is we fight wars for the wrong reasons. pollution is really an act of war–a class war, an international war, and a race war.

  • Utdardloki

    Why is there no discussion of conservation. We are an incredibly wasteful society. Visit your local grocery store and see how many refrigerated units are open the environment, it’s as if you routinely left your fridge door open. How about windows? How much could we save if the frames were less heat conductive and the glass double paned? Then there’s lighting, we waste an awful lot of money and energy on lighting things when there’s no one there to see them. Motion sensing lights make sense. I could go on…

    A small investment in conservation would yield far greater returns than bigger sums spent on megastructures, but then the Capitalists can’t sell it to you, can they? That’s what it comes down to.

    Dave in Davis

    • Menelvagor

      agreed. and industries also need to be conservationists. not permitted to pollute. We must have a zero pollution tolerance.

      • Utdardloki

        Dear FrankensteinDragon,

        Thank you for your endorsement. Conservation and pollution elimination of course go hand-in-hand and are mutually supporting.

        The real problem here is Capitalism as practiced. If one should choose to live “off the grid” in a self-sustaining way, they can only sell you stuff once (aside from occasional replacement parts). Not much lucre in that.

        Thus, the powers that be fight tooth and nail against self-sufficient energy. We could have had it decades ago! Do you remember Ronald Reagan tearing off the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed off the roof of the White House? What more graphic image do we need to demonstrate the total disconnect between those that understand and those that are in denial? What a waste that was.

        In the meanwhile, we continue to dig our hole deeper while deniers block all attempts at reform, saying it will cost too much. They apparently don’t realize just how much the cost of inaction will be. Idiots!

        Dave in Davis

  • Ben Rawner

    What does the former secretary think is the most exciting new technology that will come on line in the next few years? And what kind of work is being done to lower the electrical loss on the power lines (loss of over 50%) which could help reduce how much fossil fuels we use in total.

  • Russ

    Is anyone discussing thorium reactors? Given our huge reserves of thorium and relatively limited reserves of uranium and the inherent safety of thorium reactors, maybe its time to have a second look at this technology. I believe that China and India have strong programs in thorium reactor development and large reserves as well. As an interesting benefit, you can’t make fission bombs with thorium like you can with uranium.

    • Bill_Woods

      Strictly speaking, you can’t make a bomb with thorium (Th-232) because it isn’t fissile — you have to transmute it to fissile U-233. You could make a bomb with that in theory, as well as burn it in a reactor. However, in practice it’s easier to make bombs the old-fashioned ways: with U-235 or Pu-239.

      • Russ

        Thanks for your comment. I do know the physics but as you point out, U-233 is not the easy way. It is very difficult to handle due to its being short-term highly radioactive and separating the poisoning U-232 is also very difficult. I suspect that we both agree that uranium based reactors are the preferred way to get to bomb making material which was my point but I do appreciate the precision of your comment. I will expand any comment in the future to avoid the misunderstanding. Thanks again.

  • GiorgioOrwell2nd

    It’s naive to think you can convince the US public to start taking solar/wind etc seriously based on climate change alone, they either don’t believe in it, or don’t care. That’s why half the country was so “outraged” by Solyndra, they don’t understand the urgency of the situation and the fact that we need to continue investing in Solyndra’s until problems are solved.

    The only way the population of this country is going to take sustainable/renewable energy seriously is if they know that the era of cheap fossil fuel has ended, and that $3 to $4 gasoline will seem like a pipe dream 5 years from now. And no, we don’t have a 100 years of natural gas.

    You can’t push this agenda forward by ignoring the white elephant in the room (the end of cheap fossil fuels)

    • BioMeister

      Unfortunately, the application of fracking and directional drilling technology to oil and natural gas has extended the life expectancy of cheap fossil fuels by quite a bit, perhaps a few decades. If you believe in the threat of climate change, as I do, it is now clear that the end of fossil fuel will come too late for the health of the planet.

      • Menelvagor

        so how do you reconcile the lukewarm nature of our politicians such as chu and your comment referring to me as absurd. I believe the issue is urgent and no longer a matter of discussion. radical action and ideas are needed NOW, not someday. not when people feel like it.

        Nobody asked my opinion about NSA spying or continuous war–my opinion doesn’t matter. it’s amazing how democracy doesnt apply for us when big business is concerned and US interests are at stake (big business interests)–but when domestic affairs or things that really matter are at stake–there is nothing that can be done and “we live in a democracy,” we need to get everyone on the same page and vote and discuss –and NO–we don’t have that option when we are told –told–we MUst go tot war and die and kill–but we always get–“democracy is hard”–when anything applies to the people. BS.

        If you can make me go to war–we can make you go green for he benefit of all mankind. it doesn’t matter if you believe or want it. There is something greater at stake then selfish interests.

  • Jon Latimer

    Re: Solindra – I had the pleasure of demoing one of there cells (which I still have). The cylindrical solar cell design showed an incredible potential in all sorts of applications, and could have revolutionized the industry…is the cylindrical design now dead in the water? What happens to their patents now?

  • Edward

    First, THANK YOU Mr. Chu for all your work. I have two completely separate questions: 1: What do you think about the Greenland station carbon tipping point readings and the projections that we are already past the tipping point for serious implications on climate change.
    2: On LED lighting what is the deal with the “toxic” blue light and (I think in the 480 nanometer spectrum) issues?

  • Menelvagor

    chu is a hack and a natural gas industry puppet. he is absurd.

    • BioMeister

      You are absurd. Whatever his faults, Secretary Chu was never a fan of fossil fuels. His successor is more positive about natural gas, but still a LONG way from being their “puppet.”

      • Menelvagor

        im not being absurd. i’m listening to what he is saying. and he is basically apologizing for the industry. essentially he sits on the fence as all politicians–and never chooses a side. just wishy washy. Im not getting anything out of the conversation. I think its absurd to believe he did anything for environmental protection or progressive green technology.. )in fact the EPA is a greenwash)–he did nothing. we are behind. we are worse off than we were. and the gov has no plans to change anything.

        But natural gas is flourishing as are pipelines and oils spills. he did what he was supposed to do–nothing.

        You are absurd for being so luke warm like the rest of middle america. It’s time people in this country got passionate about something. It’s not enough to hope. It’s time to act. And all i hear on this program with chu is hope and excuses.

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