Steven Chu’s Legacy

Steven Chu’s resignation as Secretary of Energy followed a series of resignations from top posts in Obama’s administration, including the head of the EPA Lisa Jackson, Jane Lubchenco as the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. As news of Steven Chu’s resignation comes in, we must stop and look back to examine his performance as head of the Department of Energy and what his legacy for future administrations will be . [1][2]

Steven Chu was considered an unlikely choice for heading the Department of Energy, coming from an academic rather than political background, having won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 as well as heading the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab before being appointed. [3] He is a stout believer in the importance of renewable energies as means to mitigate global warming and the necessity to develop these technologies in the United States in order to tap this “ incredible economic opportunity in an emerging world market”. [4]

During his tenure, the DoE received $36 billion from the Stimulus package in 2009 in addition to the department’s yearly budget, and made use of the money on several different projects. One such project is the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), the DoE’s own DARPA to conduct in-depth research about clean energy technologies such as biofuels, PV technologies, amongst many others [5].  Furthermore, they have had several successes such as “doubl[ing] the world-record energy density for a rechargeable lithium-ion battery” and creating “a 1 megawatt silicon carbide transistor the size of a fingernail”[6]. Steven Chu also spent part of the stimulus package on many different loans for companies developing clean technologies, such as a $6 billion loan to Ford to make cars more fuel-efficient, $2 billion for Tesla Motors, and $3.9 billion for “revamping the American electricity grid” to develop a smart grid [7]. He also spearheaded the effort to contain the BP DeepWater Horizon oil spill, rallying teams of the best scientists in order to effectively stop the leak [8].

His tenure was also marked by controversy, however, especially from the bankruptcy of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which was loaned $535 million to build a new solar panel manufacturing plant. He was accused of mishandling the department’s funds and not carrying out the proper due diligence in this company that was later revealed to have serious financial deficiencies.In his defence,Chu said the bankruptcy was caused by an unprecedented drop in PV priced due to a flood of Chinese imports, and had acted along with the general financial projections  [9][11]. Furthermore, Republicans questioned Chu’s claim to have created 65,000 jobs as a consequence of the $36 billion stimulus package, since many of these jobs come from the loan to Ford and are presented as jobs saved as a result of this loan, whereas claims have been made that this figure is inflated and difficult to verify.[10]

All in all, Steven Chu’s tenure as Secretary of Energy has seen a vast increase in the development and use of renewable energy, yet it has been greatly criticized for its use of resources for loans. Only time will tell whether the investments made in renewable energy by Steven Chu will pay off in vast increases on the state of the art or if he’ll be remembered as a scientist who couldn’t succeed in Washington.



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