Thoughts on the New Energy Team

In case you are just venturing out of your cave for the first time in a week, you are probably aware that President-elect Obama has announced his new energy team:

Obama names energy team

The team includes Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy, former EPA head Carol Browner to fill the newly-created job of Energy Czar, and Lisa Jackson to head the EPA. The focus of this essay will be on Dr. Chu, but I will comment briefly on the others.

Lisa Jackson is trained as a chemical engineer (as was the outgoing Secretary of Energy Samual Bodman). It should go without saying that I like to see technical people in roles like this, where understanding science and data are both critical. Carol Browner, while not trained as a technical person, has a lot of administrative experience within the EPA. Incidentally, I once met Mrs. Browner, as she was the person who presented my research group with the 1996 Green Chemistry Challenge Award at the National Academy of Sciences.

While I don’t know nearly as much about Browner and Jackson, Dr. Chu has a very long public record. I have been searching through his various publications, speeches, and presentations to get a really good view of the man. Here is what President-elect Obama had to say about Dr. Chu:

“His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science. We will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that facts demand bold action.”

If you asked me for a few characteristics that would top my list of desirables for the spot of Energy Secretary, I would want someone who is 1). Knowledgeable about a broad range of energy technologies; 2). Someone who is passionate about the subject; 3). Someone who isn’t highly partisan, and can work with diverse groups.

Dr. Chu’s record indicates to me that he easily fills these three criteria. Dr. Chu is currently director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Among his accomplishments there was to secure a $500 million partnership with BP to do alternative energy research. (See this story from Salon for more details.) This suggests someone who can work with industry on next generation energy technologies. I am not sure how quickly he feels we can transition away from oil, and therefore whether we need additional exploration and drilling. However, he has been outspoken over his opposition to coal, and his concerns about global warming. Some quotes on these topics from Dr. Chu. First, his position on coal is pretty clear:

“Coal is my worst nightmare.”

He favors nuclear energy over coal (it should come as no suprise that a physicist like Dr. Chu is pro-nuclear):

“The fear of radiation shouldn’t even enter into this.”

“Coal is very, very bad. Nuclear has to be a necessary part of the portfolio.”

Chu, who also is professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, said nuclear is the preferred choice to coal, pointing out that coal releases 50 percent more radioactivity than nuclear power plants.

His concerns over global warming have been well-publicized:

Consider this. There’s about a 50 percent chance, the climate experts tell us, that in this century we will go up in temperature by three degrees Centigrade. Now, three degrees Centigrade doesn’t seem a lot to you, that’s 11° F. Chicago changes by 30° F in half a day. But 5° C means that … it’s the difference between where we are today and where we were in the last ice age. What did that mean? Canada, the United States down to Ohio and Pennsylvania, was covered in ice year round.

So think about what 5° C will mean going the other way. A very different world. So if you’d want that for your kids and grandkids, we can continue what we’re doing. Climate change of that scale will cause enormous resource wars, over water, arable land, and massive population displacements. We’re not talking about ten thousand people. We’re not talking about ten million people, we’re talking about hundreds of millions to billions of people being flooded out, permanently.

He is no fan of corn ethanol:

We can indeed make fuel out of crops. Corn is not the right crop. The reason it’s not the right crop is because the amount of energy you put into making a fuel and growing the corn and fertilizing the corn fields and plowing the fields is within ten or 20 percent of the amount of energy you get by making it into the ethanol that you can put in your car.

Also, the amount of CO2 you create by growing corn is again within 20 percent of the amount of carbon dioxide you make by drilling and refining oil and putting into your car.

He favors higher gas taxes:

“Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” Source.

From that same article:

Lee Schipper, a project scientist with the Global Metropolitan Studies program at U.C. Berkeley, hailed Obama’s nomination of Chu as Energy Secretary and praised his colleague’s support for higher gasoline taxes.

Schipper thinks Obama’s concerns about not placing additional burdens on America’s families can be addressed by agreeing to rebate all — or close to all — of the money raised by higher fuel taxes. “The answer is: raise the price of gasoline and give all the money back,” said Schipper.

Hmm. Where have I heard that before?

He appreciates the need for greater energy efficiency (and like me, wants to be emperor of the world):

“I cannot impress upon you enough how important energy efficiency is.”

“Just refrigerator efficiency — bigger refrigerators by the way — saves more energy than all we’re generating from renewables [today], excluding hydroelectric power.”

“If I were emperor of the world, I would put the pedal to the floor on energy efficiency and conservation for the next decade.”

And finally recognizes that the U.S. can be a leader in new energy technologies, but are starting to fall behind in some areas.

“We have an option to be a leader in energy technologies, but we are not because our support system for that is on again off again. The future wealth of the United States will come from our ability to invent new technologies.”

“Americans take for granted that the United States leads the world in science. But we’ve lost many of these leads, especially when it comes to energy.”

“The U.S. is making it easier for other countries to catch up and pass us.”

So, let’s see. He has had a career devoted to energy, is clearly passionate about the subject, doesn’t favor making ethanol from corn, thinks we need higher gas taxes, favors nuclear power, favors alternative energy funding, is pro-science, and favors higher energy efficiency. That’s exactly how I would describe myself, so from my perspective he is a very good choice. I like his priorities. He has also been involved in research on cellulosic ethanol, and will likely send more research dollars flowing in that direction.

I think the issue that will generate some controversy is his very strong position on global warming. Not since Al Gore was Vice-President will there be such a staunch proponent of reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the highest levels of government. Global warming activists will love him. Skeptics probably won’t be quite so enthusiastic.


Here are the quick bios of the rest of the energy/environment team, courtesy of Wired:

Lisa Jackson, EPA head

Quick bio: Trained as a chemical engineer at Princeton, she has spent her entire career with government environmental agencies. She worked her way up through the EPA from 1987-2002, then moved to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, eventually becoming its head in 2006. She was appointed as New Jersey Governor John Corzine’s chief-of-staff less than a month ago.

Carol Browner, energy czar

Quick bio: The longest-serving EPA administrator in the history of the agency, Browner is the non-scientist on the team. She came up through politics, working as Al Gore’s legislative director in the late 1980s, before heading the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation. She was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993 to helm the EPA and left in 2001. Since then, she’s been a consultant with The Albright Group.

Her position: The new “energy czar” will coordinate (and politically shepherd) the President-elect’s various proposals around energy and the environment.

20 thoughts on “Thoughts on the New Energy Team”

  1. Color me unimpressed. The energy team are idealogues first and foremost, even Jackson. I’ve had the sad experience of dealing with both Browner and Jackson. I wouldn’t turn my back on either one.

    For a different perspective read here: Browner and Greener

    In the waning days of the Clinton administration, Browner issued a number of new rules and regs. Then conveniently had her hard drive and e-mails scrubbed even though she was under court orders to retain the documents. Not exactly ethically inspiring.

    A number of Browner’s subordinates at EPA were found to falsify data and science to further Browner’s policy goals.

    Chu, good choice, could have been much worse, sadly misinformed on coal, good on nuclear.

  2. Well, I have to say this: I may not be blown away by Chu, but he is leagues ahead of where we are now.
    In evaluating Chu, I feel like I am evaluating a major league pitcher. Can he win 20 games next year? Maybe. We sure hope so.
    In comparison, in evaluating Bush Administration Energy Secys, it was always, “Will his ERA be in double digits?” We hope not.
    In any event, energy going on the back burner for a few years, like it or not. Oil threatening $40 today, and a glut to the moon in store for next year. Oil going to $10. For better or worse, Americans are not going to care who is Energy Secy, or about efficiency until the glut subsides, which could be 10 years or more.

  3. My, how things change. From the EIA:

    “New US EIA Energy Outlook Projects Flat Oil Consumption to 2030, Slower Growth in Energy Use and CO2 Emissions, and Reduced Import Dependence; 2% PHEV New Sales Share by 2030”

    If Chu sees that 2 percent fig for PHEVs, he will probably blow a gasket. It does seem rather low.

  4. I don’t buy the 2% figure for PHEV sales, at least if battery costs come down. Plus even though demand may remain flat here I don’t see the same worldwide, and doubt prices remain as low as they are for more than 2-5 years. Long term there will still be a price incentive to move transportation off of oil.

  5. “New US EIA Energy Outlook Projects Flat Oil Consumption to 2030,”

    Nobody can project oil consumption 22 years down the road. It’s stupid to even try. The world can’t produce 86M bpd that long anyway.

  6. King- Samuel Bodman (and I forget the name of the Lebanese guy who was SOE before him)?
    This is from the White House website:
    Samuel Bodman:
    “It is true that some critics claim the production of ethanol is not efficient, arguing it requires as much energy to produce as it generates. But nine major studies done since 1995 show that corn ethanol contains, on average, about 30 percent more energy than the fossil fuels needed to make it. In 2005, the U.S. produced 4 billion gallons of ethanol–and we are on track to produce a lot more. This can help us meet the President’s goal of significantly reducing the amount of oil we import and, by blending or using as a gasoline additive, extend the fuel supply.”

    So, in short, Bodman was a hack, trying to justify corn ethanol.
    Don’t tell me about Bush and his Energy Policy 2001 plan. He enacted only corn ethanol, which is basically a subsidy for farmers, and a terrible energy policy. This is not a partisan statement; it is a statement made on free market and other principles regarding EROEI.

    On contrast, Chu has expressed reservations about corn ethanol, and I have converted to the anti-corn ethanol camp, largely based on the comments of our fearless leader RR. I held out hope second-gen plants might make sense, but really PHEVs make much more sense.

    But, with oil sinking below $40 today, and headed towards $10, it really doesn’t matter who is Energy Secy anymore. Americans won’t and don’t care.
    Gasoline is cheap again, and probably will be for five years minimum (I hope I am wrong, meaning we get a global recovery pronto). Natural gas is abundant, thanks to new shale technology.
    Never bet against man’s ingenuity in commodities markets.

    The train wreck left behind by the Bush Administration supercedes all politics, stripes, parties ethnicities, allegiances, etc.

    Bush is a near-complete failure by any measure.

    Give me some size 10 throwing shoes.

  7. Chu, good choice, could have been much worse, sadly misinformed on coal, good on nuclear.

    How exactly is he misinformed on coal? The stuff is bad. Needed for the economy (without cheap nukes)? Sure, in the current energy paradigm. That doesn’t negate the fact it’s a horrible fuel source for a 21st century society.

    Maybe people want us to live in the past. Sorry, I want forward-thinking leadership not brain-stunted idealogues (mercury poisoning, maybe?) And yes, you can be a pragmatist and dislike coal; it’s a Neanderthal fuel if there ever was one.

  8. Chu (and yourself) are thinking thermal coal conversion to electricity with post-combustion CO2 capture. That isn’t the way to do it. Think chemical conversion. Coal can be gasified and the CO2 seperated from the synthesis gas. This concentrated CO2 can be used for enhanced oil recovery. Here is a news story on it:

    Fox News: Coal Gasification

    The metals and other nasty components in the coal end up in a vitrious slag that can be spun into rock wool and used for insulation or other purposes. The nitrogen and sulfur componds from gasification can be made into anhydrous ammonia and ammonium thiosulphate for fertilizer. The CO2 can be pumped to old oil fields where it can be used to increase recovery of oil.

    The synthesis gas can be converted in to methane, methanol, ethanol, DME, or even gasoline, or burned in a turbine to produce power.

    This is not your father or grandfather’s coal plant.

  9. Anon – in the gasification process the mercury goes out with the slag, rendering it non-reactive. It is safe enough to use in roofing shingles and for aggregate in road building.

    Benny – so will you not heap some scorn on Obama’s new Sec of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack-D, Gov. of the state of Ethanol???

  10. There’s a great video on San Francisco I Am where hundreds of teens in the Bay Area ditched their video games at home and headed for the biggest green festival in the nation. The Festival was held in San Francisco and the kids learned AND taught one another about climate change and green jobs. Even Chuck D from Public Enemy was there.

    You can check out the video here:

  11. ROBERT–

    thank you for review/analysis on this topic. i hope that Dr. Chu succeeds[as best anyone can in the DC turmoil] on your highlighted areas of emphasis.

    i also hope that progress is made on all major fronts in this administration, though i don’t believe BO is as serious on several fronts as perceived by many. money and political pragmatism lurk as major obstacles which will reveal reality soon.


  12. King-
    As I have stated, I fear ethanol will be a permanent part of our political-economic landscape, along with every other farm program ever started. Farmers have never given up a subsidy in the history of the Republic. Not R-Party, not D-Party can stand in the way.
    Chu? I like Chu until he does something stupid, and since he is in DC now that probably won’t be long. Vilsack looks more in the hack category.
    But King, man oh man, I wish nothing but success on this new administration.
    It looks ugly out there. Port traffic, freight car loadings, bankruptcies, even Chinese steel production, cardboard recycling–there is a collapse going on.
    Add in two unfinished wars that eat money.
    This is a debacle.

  13. Anon – green brainwashing of kids. The kid saying coal is dirty is just regurgitating talking points told to him by others. More liberal wacko groupthink.

    I liked the “Rock the Bike”, you don’t need much energy to run a PA system.

    Maybe the little ecorobots needed to hook up their bikes to an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 and a video monitor. Let’s see, 200 W for the video game and another 200 or so for the monitor. The inrush power for both the game and the TV are something like 1,400 W or so. Better hook up a deep cycle battery and pedal for 15-20 minutes before you try to flip on the juice. Most adults can peak out at about 100 W. Let’s assume that the average mind numbed green teen can do 60. So you’ll need 7 of the ecobots pumping away to fire up Halo 3.

    That would likely teach them that alternatives and crapfests like the Green Fair are a total waste of time.

    On the other hand, maybe getting them off the coach and doing some excercise wouldn’t be a bad thing.

  14. King-
    You know, Chu must be a threat to OPEC. Oil down to $36 today on the NYMEX. Just the thought of some real conservation in the USA is cratering oil markets.

  15. I meant “off the couch”.

    Anyway, I like this game. We could teach these kids a lot at the Green Festival.

    Maybe I’ll come next year with the “Which would you rather do?” booth.

    We’ll tell the kids they can play 1 hour of Halo 3. But here is the deal. You have to go find 7 other kids to pedal generators for an hour. OR (and here is where the lesson comes in). Let’s burn some coal!

    Same 400 Watts for 1 hour or .400 kWh. Even at California prices that’s a whopping 8 cents of power! So we’d really be running a little Green Sweat shop, paying the other kids a little over a penny an hour – but I digress.

    A bright shiny new supercritical coal fired plant generates at 43% thermal efficiency. Figure 5% transmission losses. An average subbitumunous coal is 10,000 BTUs per pound. There are 3413 BTUs/kWh. So, let’s see that works out to . . . whoa, 0.3 lbs of coal. That is maybe 1 lump of coal? But wait what about CO2? Isn’t that bad?

    Well what do you think the little green zombies were exhaling as they turned their organic veggie burgers and soy milkshakes into volts? Burning coal probably REDUCED the global warming footprint of human powered video games.

    Seven kids pumping for an hour – tiny lump of coal – which do you think they will pick?

    Hey anon – can you get me an invite to next year’s festival???

  16. King –
    What makes you think IGCC is a viable option? It has been proven to be prohibitively expensive. Why do you think Futuregen was scrapped? Even with generous EOR income, the economics do not pencil out.

    At those rates, you are better off building nuclear.

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