Top 5 reasons Chu is a great energy pick — #1: Its not guaranteed we have a solution for coal

Obama will formally name Steven Chu his nominee for energy secretary at a press conference this afternoon. Here’s the top 5 reasons he is one of the best cabinet picks in recent memory:

5. His “views on climate change would be among the most forceful ever held by a cabinet member.” He said last year, scientists had come to “realize that the climate is much more sensitive than we thought” [see Scientists are Underestimating Climate Change, Part I]. He said people who said they were uncertain whether climate change is being caused by humans were “reminiscent of the dialogue in the 1950s and ’60s on tobacco.” In a speech earlier this year, he said that climate change of the scale we face “will cause enormous resource wars, over water, arable land, and massive population displacements…. We’re talking about hundreds of millions to billions of people being flooded out, permanently.

4. As a Chinese American and Nobel Prize winner, he will be uniquely poised to help enable the crucial energy and climate negotiations the Obama team must undertake immediately with the world’s other big emitter (see What will make Obama a great president, Part 2: A climate deal with China). The AP reports from China:

China’s media are cheering President-elect Barack Obama’s pick of Chinese-American Steven Chu for the post of U.S. energy secretary, saying it bodes well for future cooperation between the two countries.

Photographs of Chu, who was born in St. Louis to Chinese parents, were printed on the front pages of major newspapers Friday, illustrating the pride China takes in the achievements of the vast Chinese diaspora.

The state-owned China Daily cited Chinese academics as saying Chu’s ethnic background would ease cooperation between China and the U.S.

“Chu’s presence will make the cooperation smoother,” it cited Tsinghua University scholar Zhou Shijian as saying.

3. He has experience running a major DOE lab, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, so he knows the archaic and bureaucratic DOE system well. When I came to DOE in the summer of 1993, it took me over a year to figure out how to really get things done. He will have a huge head start over any Energy Secretary in recent memory.

2. The lab he runs is responsible for developing the technologies that have paid for all the clean energy research the tax payers have ever supported (see Energy efficiency, Part 5: The highest documented rate of return of any federal program). So while even the most knowledgeable clean energy experts focus too much on supply side solutions, Chu will ensure efficiency gets the equal time it deserves.

1. He isn’t fooled by clean coal claptrap. Earlier this year he said, “Coal is my worst nightmare“:

If coal is to stay part of the world’s energy mix, he says, clean-coal technologies must be developed. But he’s not very optimistic: “It’s not guaranteed we have a solution for coal,” he concluded, given the sheer scope of the challenge of economically storing billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions underground.

Worried about radioactivity? Coal’s still your bogeyman. Dr. Chu says a typical coal plant emits 100 times more radiation than a nuclear plant, given the flyash emissions of radioactive particles.

For the foreseeable future — and perhaps beyond that — we will have to tackle the climate challenge without carbon capture. Fortunately we can (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?“) — and even more fortunately, we finally have an energy secretary who understands that.

18 Responses to Top 5 reasons Chu is a great energy pick — #1: Its not guaranteed we have a solution for coal

  1. charlie says:

    He will also be in charge of a departments that in one of the shameful episodes of the Clinton years (and something that should have made Bill Richardson illegible for future employment) tried to run another Chinese-American scientist into jail.

  2. groweg says:

    Chu apparently wants us to forego new fossil fuel energy development in favor of pie-in-the-sky solar and wind energy. We would likely sink into third-world economic status or worse before his favored energy sources were developed. Such a futile policy is in line with a CO2 driven global warming theory that is built on falsified climate records and disporoven “science.” For some of many web-based sources see:

    [Links to long-debunked disinformation deleted.]

    Increasingly, as the world is entering a period of global cooling, even everyday observation of the world around us falsifies the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis Chu foolishly espouses.

    [JR: You have come to the wrong website. We rely on science, not anti-science. And we’re desperately trying to save future generations, including your descendents, from decades and centuries of misery despite your best efforts to the contrary.]

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Tax fossil CO2 emissions. Use the proceeds to permanently remove the CO2 from the active carbon cycle.

  4. Teryn Norris says:

    Speaking at this summer’s National Clean Energy Summit convened by Senator Harry Reid, Dr. Chu said:

    “Another myth is we have all the technologies we need to solve the energy challenge — it’s only a matter of political will. I think political will is absolutely necessary… but we need new technologies to transform the [energy] landscape.”

    Do you think Dr. Chu misunderstands the state of energy technology, or are his statements accurate?

    [JR: I think the world “solve” covers a multitude of sins. But in any case, I have never once said we have all the technologies commercialized that we need to solve the energy challenge. If you are going to try to “trap” me, you might try going after what I actually said, not your misstatement of what I said. Chu does understand how dire the climate problem is and what the full scale of the solution is. That puts him way beyond what you all are thinking.]

  5. Bob Wallace says:

    Make it financially attractive to coal plant owners to invest capital in non-polluting energy production.

    Make them want to switch rather than fight.

    Coal plant owners are going to resist having their capital stranded in a non-productive asset if we crank up the regulations or taxes to a point where it forces them out. Threaten their investments and you’ll be dealing with delaying tactics that will set us back even further.

    Sure, it might cost us some extra money up front, but it should save us a lot of money down the road. In health care costs alone….

    (For example, establish a carbon tax. But give coal plants the option to invest in “wind farms” and receive matching funds for each dollar they invest or pay the tax. At some point the lower price of wind will force coal + carbon tax out of the market.)

  6. Bob Wallace says:

    charlie –

    After the last eight years of your boy in the White House everything that happened during the Clinton years seems like a shower of rose petals on a warm summer morning….

    We have a solution for coal. Quit using it ASAP.

    Sweeten the pot some more for companies that bring clean energy to the grid. Set a course that can get us off coal by a fairly realistic target year such as 2030 or 2040. Then make lots of resources available for finding ways to reel that target back in closer.

    We’ll know, for example, in a couple of years if hot rock geothermal is workable with today’s technology.

    We’ll know, for example, in a couple of years if we can do away with gear boxes in wind turbines thus making them cheaper to build, longer lasting and more productive.

    Either of these pan out and we can reel our target in closer.

  7. Jim Bullis says:

    Bob Wallace–

    when you said (paste start), “Threaten their investments and you’ll be dealing with delaying tactics that will set us back even further.” (end paste) you were getting to some reality that has to be dealt with if real solutions are to be put in place. It also seems like there will be difficult economic reality to deal with if the cost of electricity were to greatly increase, and if this is not dealt with then there will simply be no solution. This is where things could go if there is real action by law to outright ban or severely restrict coal use. Restricting coal use will certainly increase use of natural gas and therefore will likely drive up natural gas prices. Using electric energy to power cars will further add to the load on natural gas supplies.

  8. Jim Bullis says:

    My litmus test for Energy related appointments would be to ask if the Federal Regulation regarding electric vehicles, issued June 12, 2000 as copied here is utter absurdity:

    1. General Form of the PEF Equation
    The general form of the PEF equation
    PEF = Eg * 1/0.15 * AF * DPF
    Eg = Gasoline-equivalent energy content
    of electricity factor
    1/0.15 = ‘‘Fuel content’’ factor
    AF = Petroleum-fueled accessory factor
    DPF = Driving pattern factor
    The development of these factors is
    described below.
    2. Gasoline-Equivalent Energy Content
    of Electricity Factor
    When comparing gasoline vehicles
    with electric vehicles, it is essential to
    consider the efficiency of the respective
    ‘‘upstream’’ processes in the two fuel
    cycles. A full description of the
    differences in the processes is beyond
    the scope of this rulemaking, but the
    critical difference is that a gasoline
    vehicle burns its fuel on-board the
    vehicle, and an electric vehicle burns its
    fuel (the majority of electricity in the
    U.S. is generated at fossil fuel burning
    powerplants) off-board the vehicle. In
    both cases, the burning of fuels to
    produce work is the least efficient step
    of the respective energy cycles.
    Therefore, the PEF includes a term for
    expressing the relative energy efficiency
    of the full energy cycles of gasoline and
    electricity. This term, the gasolineequivalent
    energy content of electricity
    factor, abbreviated as Eg, is defined as:
    Eg = gasoline-equivalent energy content
    of electricity = (Tg * Tt * C) Tp
    Tg = U.S. average fossil-fuel electricity
    generation efficiency = 0.328
    Tt = U.S. average electricity
    transmission efficiency = 0.924
    Tp = Petroleum refining and distribution
    efficiency = 0.830
    C = Watt-hours of energy per gallon of
    gasoline conversion factor = 33,705
    Eg = (0.328 * 0.924 * 33705)/0.830 =
    12,307 Wh/gal
    The derivation of these values is
    straightforward but lengthy and is
    therefore not discussed in this notice.
    Details on the assumptions,
    calculations, and data sources used to
    derive these values are described in
    materials contained in Docket No. EE–
    RM–99–PEF, which may be reviewed at
    the DOE Freedom of Information
    Reading Room, at the address and times
    stated above.
    3. ‘‘Fuel Content’’ Factor
    The fuel content factor has a value of
    1/0.15 and is included in the PEF for the
    reasons described in the notice of
    proposed rulemaking and the responses
    to comments section of this notice.
    Briefly, these reasons are:
    (i) Consistency with existing
    regulatory and statutory procedures;
    (ii) Provision of similar treatment to
    manufacturers of all types of alternative
    fuel vehicles; and
    (iii) Simplicity and ease of use.
    The fuel content factor value of 1/0.15
    is equivalent to a multiple of 6.67.
    4. Petroleum-Powered Accessory Factor
    A minority of electric vehicles,
    primarily those that may be operated in
    colder climates, may be equipped with
    auxiliary petroleum-powered
    accessories, such as cabin heater/
    defroster systems. DOE addresses the
    possible use of such petroleum-powered
    accessories in the PEF calculations by
    incorporating an Accessory Factor (AF).
    This factor reduces the PEF by ten
    percent when an electric vehicle is
    equipped with any petroleum-powered
    accessories. This results in two possible
    accessory factor values:
    Petroleum-powered accessories
    Accessory factor
    (AF) value
    No ………………………………….. 1.00
    Yes …………………………………. 0.90
    DOE recognizes that there are many
    variables affecting the actual energy
    efficiency penalty of petroleumpowered
    accessories, but believes that
    the ten percent penalty is a reasonable
    representative value. DOE has prepared
    a supporting technical analysis of the
    magnitude of the actual energy
    efficiency penalty of petroleumpowered
    accessories, and placed this
    analysis in the docket. Because this
    approach penalizes electric vehicles
    equipped with petroleum-powered
    accessories, it provides an incentive for
    manufacturers to develop vehicles with
    electrically-powered access—

    End Copy———–

    With regulation like this who needs enemies?

  9. Asa Hopkins says:

    @ Jim Bullis: that regulation language looks pretty standard, although of course you’ve copied only a chunk out of the middle, defining terms, etc. I’m sure that the technical folks who design and build electric cars can work it out, with help from a lawyer, provided the full text.

  10. jorleh says:

    I well understand the rage of the dirty money and stupidity against super science.

    Remember, there is no more Middle Age. Take a trip in the real science and see the light. Of course many of you are not able for this kind of brainy activity. Then it is better to be silent and admire the really great minds.

  11. Finally an energy secretary who actually understands energy. 3 cheers!

    PS: WE ALREADY have new nukes. Research has been ongoing for more than 62 years.

    Coal has a $100 Billion cash flow per year in the US alone. It will take a lot to stop coal, but stop coal we must.

  12. geochemist says:

    Here is the Obama energy policy in a nutshell: Develop new uneconomic energy sources. Focus on wind and solar. Do this under the guise of protecting the earth from evil greenhouse gases and ‘climate change.’ To hell with a competitive economy. End of policy.

    Before we start the long road to uneconomic energy supplies we should prove a link between CO2 and temperature. Judging from geologic history the link between CO2 and temperature is weak to negative. There is a lot of work to do before we start crushing the economy. Anyone who tells you that the science of global warming is settled is not capable to understanding the complexity of the science.

  13. Jim Bullis says:

    Asa Hopkins,

    Yes, they work it out. They just ignore the whole thing, even though it is federal law. Even those making almost fraudulent claims for electric and plug in hybrid car performance avoid the methodology for computing MPG which is stiplated here.

    California makes up its rules based on questionable assumptions about energy sources. Google makes up its rules and quotes MPG as if electricity falls out of the sky, as it does at Google after they spent big money on solar panels. The big car companies also pretend that electricity falls from the sky, though some at least admit in the fine print that they are not counting the electric energy.

    My point is that we need some good rules here that correctly represent the source of electric energy. The campaign against global warming will be seriously delayed if these rules are not correct. Most importantly, the big car companies will claim energy efficiency success that is unwarranted, and thus qualify for bailout billions.

    Those of us who understand that the link has been reasonably well proven need to recognize and deal with the realities of the competitive ecoomy if a viable solution is to be put in place.

  14. Jim Bullis says:


    Not to overstate my position, I should have said, “Those of us who think we understand that —“

  15. Jim Bullis says:


    I wonder if you understand that there is a lot of overlap, but still significant differences between basic science, big science, and engineering. Furthermore, nothing gets done to solve major problems without business and political involvement.

    Those that I think have “the really great minds” understand the differences and see the overall need for mutual understanding and cooperative work.

  16. Reason No. 5, Joe, is butressed by a recent interview Chu gave to the Copenhagen Climate Council, where he said that climate change threatens the planet with “sudden, unpredictable, and irreversible disaster.”

    Read more here:

  17. David Lewis says:

    Do we really “finally have an energy secretary who understands that” as you say, “we will have to tackle the climate challenge without carbon capture”?

    I keep studying Chu and I don’t see how you can conclude this. For instance, you use the famous Chu quote “Coal is my worst nightmare” as if this is evidence he agrees with you.

    I located the speech this statement came from (Chu’s remarks on coal start around the 28 minute mark.)

    and went over the section where he speaks about coal. It is very clear why coal is his worst nightmare. Coal use without CCS is expanding dramatically:

    “Coal is so plentiful there’s no serious exploration for it…. China is now embarked on a program to be building about 1/2 GT to 1 GT coal plant a week…. the US is also on a path that’s roughly one a week…. Its also the default option of India. Russia wants to go to coal because it uses its natural gas and oil as hard currency…. So this is what we’re seeing now. It’s not that we’re going to head for this, it’s what we’re currently doing.”

    What is made clear in this “coal is my worst nightmare” speech is that Chu believes that carbon capture technology exists and is affordable:

    “the issue here is actually not the cost of converting the coal into a stream of hydrogen and CO2 and pumping the CO2 underground. That would probably increase the [my note: retail] power bill by as much as 25%. That’s what a carbon price of $30 – $40 a ton would be equivalent to”

    I transcribed this coal section of his speech myself. I do not see any objection to CCS Chu is making other than this:

    “But there’s an unknown cost, in that this [the sequestration] faces legal challenges”

    Speaking of CCS technology as a whole, he says: “So its sort of an R&D issue. I think we have to do this if we’re going to go forward with coal”.

    All there is in this speech is his caution about NIMBY legal unknowns to do with sequestration. He sees a legal challenge. No scientist can predict how something like that will evolve. Hence his cautious statement: “Its not guaranteed we have a solution for coal”.

    I’ve heard him make other statements about sequestration where he brings up technological difficulties and uncertainties, but there isn’t anything else in this particular speech.

    The literature of CCS is replete with report after report stating that storage is the minor cost, and regarding what holds CCS back from widespread implementation right now, report after report say, including Chu’s own “Lighting the Way” done for the IAC which states “it will be necessary to develop regulations and to introduce price signals”, which is simply not a description of a technology that we will never be able to use.

    It doesn’t look to me like Chu would agree with your statement that “for the foreseeable future – and perhaps beyond that – we will have to tackle the climate change problem without carbon capture”.

    Perhaps you should ask him and post his answer.

  18. Wilmot McCutchen says:

    We need coal for base load power, which keeps the lights on. Wind and solar are intermittent, therefore they can’t be relied on for more than 20% of the grid, and any power over that will be wasted unless some form of storage is developed. But an alternative is to use renewables to crack coal CO2 to CO (5.5 eV). effectively turning CO2 into a storage medium for renewable energy. That would provide ab alternative to “sequestration” (underground dumping), which the GAO has just found to be unworkable. After 20 years of the Endarkenment, it is time for some new ideas to be considered.