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The Education of Steven Chu

The Nobel physicist was brought in to transform the energy economy, but faced political battles.


(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)()

The departure of Energy Secretary Steven Chu highlights the political struggle President Obama has faced in trying to enact even a portion of the sweeping clean-energy and climate change agenda he envisioned when he ran for the White House in 2008.

Obama tapped the Nobel physicist to lead his fight to stop global warming and transform the nation’s energy economy but the broad climate bill the president hoped would become part of his legacy never made it through Congress and Chu later found himself embroiled in the political controversy over the bankrupt solar company Solyndra.


Chu announced his departure on Friday. He told employees that he plans to stay on through the end of February, and possibly later until a new secretary is in place.

At the time Chu took the helm at the Energy Department, it actually played very little role in shaping energy policy. Its chief purview was to oversee the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.  Obama's plan was to push a comprehensive energy and climate change bill through Congress, raising $150 billion for clean energy research over a decade. Chu was to oversee a transformation of the department into an international driver of clean energy development. And he did oversee the federal government’s single biggest investment in clean energy in history – a one-time shot of $35 billion from the 2009 stimulus law.

In 2010, the climate change bill died in Congress. And the following year, Chu’s star fell and he and the Energy Department became a political target when the solar company Solyndra, which received $535 million in stimulus funding, went bankrupt and became the subject of an FBI probe. But Chu also won high praise from all quarters for his central role in stopping the disastrous 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. And while the ambitious plan to expand and transform the Energy Department into a juggernaut of clean energy research wasn’t realized, Chu brought some of the greatest scientific minds of the country to help launch small but cutting-edge new clean energy research and development agencies, which have been hailed as some of the most innovative and important in the nation.     


Chu was the first Nobel prize winner to be appointed to a U.S. Cabinet post. When he took office, he was already a star in the scientific community. He came to Washington from University of California, Berkeley, where he was a professor of physics and molecular biology and director of the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. When the new president declared that tackling global warming was a top priority, and that Chu was the man to take it on, the self-styled nerd was catapulted into a spotlight, and his stardom transcended the worlds of Washington and academia.  In June 2009, Rolling Stone published a profile of him entitled “Secretary of Saving the Planet.”

Chu had almost no political experience when he came to Washington – a qualification that, at the beginning, often endeared him to lawmakers. He testified regularly before congressional committees and his warm but wonky style won plaudits even from Republicans, when he launched into enthusiastic explanations about energy and climate science.

When pressed on political questions by the press, Chu would sometimes quip, “I’m a scientist, not a politician!” 

Susan Tierney, an assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration, who worked with the Obama 2008 transition team to help prepare Chu for his new job, recalled the excitement over the new secretary.


“It’s not an accident that a Nobel prize winning scientist was chosen…the president had had a plank of wanting to be very much more scientifically based. Decarbonizing the energy supply was a big scientific goal. That was part of the excitement of bringing someone like him in,” she said.

Later, that lack of political experience would prove a challenge.   

Clean-Energy Projects

Obama’s first signature piece of clean energy legislation was his 2009 economic stimulus law, which injected  $800 billion into the ailing economy – including $35 billion to the Energy Department for a massive jump-start in clean energy projects, such as wind, solar, geothermal and energy efficiency installations. The stimulus was both the biggest federal investment in clean energy in U.S. history, and an unprecedented sum for the agency, which typically has an annual budget of only about $28 billion -– of which only about $2 billion per year had previously gone to clean-energy funding.

The Obama administration saw the sum as a down payment on future clean-energy funding that would flow more freely once Congress passed a cap-and-trade law.

The money came with a deadline – it had to be spent in two years. In theory, the cash should have been a dream come true – but in practice, it created a logistical nightmare as the agency struggled to ramp up staff and resources in an area in which it had little expertise.  

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