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Is Energy Secretary Chu Too Smart?

Is he too skeptical about hydrogen and natural gas fueled cars, too optimistic about white roots?

2 min read

Long long ago in a time far far away, when the SATs were still called the Coillege Boards, I remember taking one such exam in which the reading comprehension section featured a short essay arguing that people of average intelligence often make better managers than super-smart people. The general idea was that average people are better at listening, weighing off competing views, and deciding judiciously.

Energy Secretary Chu reportedly is trying to kill federal funding for hydrogen-fueled cars, a feature you may recall of President Bush's vaunted "hydrogen economy" (which momentarily helped kill the electric car). Chu also is expressing skepticism about a House bill that would have the energy deartment spend $30 million annually to promote conversion of cars to natural gas, in line with the Pickens Plan that would substitute wind for natural gas in generation and have the freed up methane power vehicles.

Personally, I share Chu’s skepticism about hydrogen cars, and I'm inclined to think that natural gas would be better used as a substitute for coal in electricity generation. But then I may be wrong. Since I recognize that, perhaps I'm better qualified to be energy secretary than the famous Nobelist? It seems to follow logically: People of average intellect make better managers; I'm of average intellect; therefore I should be energy secretary.

Chu also has been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere for eloquent statements he's made of late in support of white roofs and roads, in speeches and most recently on Comedy Central’s Daily Show. I was very taken with the idea myself when I watched the Jon Stewart interview. But then I thought: white roofs in New York City, where the air isn't exactly clean? And white roads, with gasoline-powered cars spewing out dirty and noxious exhaust? I don't think we'll have white roads, actually, until we have hydrogen-powered cars emitting water vapor as their exhaust.


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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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