Last week brought the widely expected news that Steven Chu will be stepping down as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Chu has been a hero to scientists and clean energy advocates, but on his watch the DOE has made some questionable decisions, particularly from a commercialization and business standpoint. That said, Chu has also laid the groundwork for a strong legacy of energy innovation – if those initiatives produce results, he may justly be regarded as one of the most important DOE Secretaries since the department was created in 1977.
Unfortunately for Chu and DOE, the name “Solyndra” will appear in the first paragraph of most appraisals of his term – the DOE’s ill-fated $535 million loan guarantee (client registration required) to the Silicon Valley solar panel maker became a rallying cry for opposition to the Obama administration’s clean energy investments. Other recipients of DOE loan guarantees and other largesse, including A123 Systems (client registration required), Beacon Power (client registration required), EnerDel, and Abound Solar (client registration required), have also filed for bankruptcy. While there was a case for deploying government funds when private investors largely stopped lending during the financial crisis, the DOE loan guarantee program mixed investments in reliable projects, like solar power plants using established technologies, with funds for firms like Solyndra that faced steep technical and market risks. It was highly likely that several would fail, but DOE either underestimated the risks or wasn’t well prepared for the political fallout (or some combination of both), and arguably hurt the cause of government support for new energy technologies – previously a point of bipartisan consensus.
Chu’s DOE also showed commercial naïveté in its claim that it could help bring 1 million electric vehicles to U.S. roads by 2015 – and President Obama personally cited Chu’s assurances in defending the administration’s focus on electric vehicles. While the DOE target included plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) like the Chevy Volt, as well as all-electric vehicles (EVs), only around 250,000 such vehicles will realistically be in operation in the U.S by the end of 2015 (see the report “Small Batteries, Big Sales: The Unlikely Winners in the Electric Vehicle Market” — client registration required). Anemic sales to date of PH/EVs also belie such optimism, and just before Chu stepped aside, DOE began publicly backing away from the goal – suggesting that DOE’s EV enthusiasm may not have been the best use of its resources.
What’s more, DOE has largely been on the sidelines of the most important energy story of Obama’s first term – the phenomenal boom in domestic gas and oil production, driven by technologies like hydraulic fracturing. To some extent that’s only right – by the time the technology (which had benefitted from DOE support in decades past) was ready for prime time, the industry hardly needed further help from DOE. However, given the impact this production will have on the energy and climate picture in the U.S., and the remaining technology and policy needs to help access these resources safely and make the best use of them, it’s surprising how little focus they’ve received (barely meriting a mention in Chu’s review of his term in his resignation letter).
Despite these stumbles, history may well look kindly on Chu’s tenure, because programs he’s championed have the potential to create a generation of impactful new technologies and keep the U.S. a center of innovation in energy. Through the network of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers, and especially the new Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), the DOE is funding research on really novel technologies with a breadth, depth, and purpose beyond its previous basic science efforts. ARPA-E, in particular, is well-positioned to help fill a void left by venture capitalists that are (wisely, by their financial standards) increasingly reluctant to invest in early-stage energy technologies. If these programs help shepherd along impactful energy technologies that that come to the market over the next decade, they’ll have a greater impact than even a successful Solyndra would have, and will validate Chu’s initiatives.
Given the ups and downs of Chu’s tenure, who should Obama tap to replace him? Some favor another academic, like Shirley Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or Ernest Moniz of the MIT Energy Initiative, to continue to build DOE’s innovation efforts. Others argue that DOE’s commercial blind spot argues for a businessperson like Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. While a course correction is needed, and energy business acumen at DOE would be welcome, a utility executive may not be the best steward of Chu’s innovation legacy (and may sit uneasily atop what’s still largely a scientific agency). A business leader with more innovation experience could serve admirably – GE CEO Jeff Immelt has been floated, though seems unlikely to serve. Otherwise, given the controversies DOE has weathered and the need to defend its budget in an era of sequestration and discretionary spending cuts, a more seasoned politician might also be a wise choice to follow Chu. Someone like former (moderate) Republican governor and EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman or past North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan could serve to consolidate Chu’s gains in long-term innovation, but would still be inclined to pivot the agency more toward the pressing issues of the day.