Stephen Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning Secretary of Energy, tendered his resignation today. He was a quiet presence during these exceptionally loud past few years on the Hill, and his legacy risks being woefully distorted. When you read about his resignation in any mainstream news outlet, for instance, you’re going to see the story framed this way: Chu was undoubtedly very smart, but he was not prepared for big league governance. Because Solyndra. For evidence, I submit the WaPo’s lede paragraph: “Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who won a Nobel Prize in physics but came under questioning for his handling of a solar energy loan, is stepping down.”
This is not just a problematic way to frame the story of his resignation, which has nothing to do with Solyndra, but does gross injustice to Chu’s impressive body of work as Energy Secretary.
First, Solyndra. Godforsaken Solyndra. Yes, it was embarrassing when a solar company that pocketed a $500 million government loan went belly up—but look. After an endless parade of Congressional investigations and the spewing of infinite politicized vitriol, no evidence of wrongdoing was ever uncovered. Ever. Even Solyndra’s most vehement foes admit this openly now, but they succeeded so fully in getting the news cycle to regurgitate their ‘controversy’ that nobody even remembers the facts.
The fact is, that loan program was designed to carry a certain amount of risk—it assumed that a number of companies pushing innovative, cutting-edge technologies were expected to go belly up, but that others wouldn’t. To this day, that portfolio has operated as planned—there have been some clean energy tech winners, a couple losers, and a few that are still developing.
So what will Chu’s legacy really be, since it can’t possibly be consigned to the failure of a single solar company?
That’s harder to say. Chu’s biggest influence was made early on. A vocal supporter of wind, solar, and nuclear power, Chu understood the threat posed by climate change better than almost anyone else in Obama’s cabinet. So, since he was in charge of distributing some $35 billion to various energy projects, he took the opportunity to invest heavily in cleantech research and deployment.
Alexis Madrigal, who wrote a book on the history of energy, describes Chu’s choices thusly:
“though the disbursements weren't perfect, they seemed, to an outsider, to be the mix of "shovel-ready" (remember that term?) projects and longer-horizon research that you'd expect. Who knows what fruits the seeds planted during his tenure will bear?”
Precisely. We may yet see a solar tech breakthrough that was engendered in this generous batch of research. We may not. But it’s clear that in the age of climate change, more funding must be directed to clean energy research. Chu heeded that call.
He also oversaw the development of ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s answer to the DoD’s DARPA. The agency deploys funds to high-risk, high-gain energy projects, those looking for battery tech breakthroughs and super-efficient panels—stuff that may be considered pie-in-the-sky to some, but stuff that may eventually offer up a crucial key to a sustainable energy system.
The Energy Fixers, a Motherboard short on ARPA-E
In a similar vein, Chu started five separate Energy Innovation Hubs, each of which partner with a university. The latest, the Critical Materials Institute at Ames University in Iowa, will research how to optimize the rare earth metals used in wind, solar, and nuclear power. The Critical Materials Institute is perhaps Chu’s final victory—the Hubs were his brainchild. And this one will receive $120 million in funding over the next five years, and its focus is all-important, especially as we ramp up production of clean energy technologies in coming years.
Chu also strongly advocated for energy efficiency, and mobilized the DOE to jumpstart home retrofit programs, upgrade efficiency in federal buildings, and to partner with states to incentivize similar programs on the state level. He began outfitting federal buildings with white roofs, which reflect heat and improve efficiency.
He also repeatedly called for boosts in federal research funding in general, saying that we were on the brink of a Sputnik moment for clean technology—a line Obama later aped in a State of the Union address. In fact, he was constantly going to bat for clean energy. He wanted more attention, more money, and more focus on climate solutions, but the political climate in Washington made it impossible.
And that’s the true story of Chu’s tenure on the Hill: a brilliant scientific mind dropped into a pit of science-denying vipers. The radical GOP element in Congress blocked any significant effort to reduce carbon emissions, and never took Chu seriously. Remember, this was officially the most anti-science Congress in recent history—there’s no way that they were going to treat the ideas of a soft-spoken, extremely intelligent bureaucrat seriously.
Chu’s thinking was perfectly sound—a world that’s preternaturally warming due to the burning of carbon fuels needs alternative fuels, and to develop them as soon as possible. But his supposed colleagues in government proved they would rather devote their time to making him look bad for a single unfortunate loan than give any of his ideas a moment’s thought.
Given the environment he faced—filled with braindead climate denial and medieval calls for heads to roll over Solyndra—there was no way that Chu could have succeeded politically. But I’d say that all things considered, he did admirably—and his legacy may yet shine through the anti-science morass that clouds this particular moment in out politics.