Who After Chu?

When U.S. President Barack Obama nominates successors to outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, pundits will naturally scrutinize the biographies of the proposed successors for hints to future policy. In the case of the EPA, the main issue will be whether the new administrator intends to aggressively use the agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gases without having to go to Congress for a cap-and-trade bill. One example of a workaround the agency might set up is a trading system to reward more efficient and less polluting energy generation.

Given the huge range of matters subject to the Department of Energy's purview, evaluation of a newly nominated DOE secretary will be a more challenging task. I suggest focusing on those technologies notably unmentioned or underplayed in Chu's remarkably voluminous farewell statement to energy department staff: the smart grid, advanced nuclear reactors, electric and hybrid-electric cars, batteries and energy storage, and "clean coal" or carbon separation and sequestration.

As noted in an earlier post, Chu mentioned the smart grid not once in his farewell remarks, despite the heavy emphasis put on advanced metering and related technologies in the president's 2009 stimulus program. While there are good reasons to be disappointed in what those public investments have yielded so far, surely some benefits deserved to be noted and built upon.

Though the president always has supported nuclear energy, reactors are mentioned only twice in Chu's speech—once in the context of safety simulations, and once in connection with disposing of Soviet-era fissile materials.Advanced reactors weren't mentioned at all. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been looking at ideas for small, modular, intrinsically safer reactors; surely there is a role for DOE here as well.

What about electric vehicles and advanced cars generally? Chu mentioned a DOE-sponsored plug-in hybrid challenge, but otherwise had nothing to say about research on more energy-efficient vehicles. The same goes for energy storage, where he confined himself to two brief mentions in the context of newly created R&D centers,

As for carbon separation and storage, while I'm not wildly optimistic about the prospects for making it technically viable and economically attractive, doesn't the energy department need to do more get us off the dime in this area?

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


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