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Energy Secretary 'Optimistic' But Cautious

Steven Chu's efforts to curb U.S. energy consumption included  Washington, D.C.'s Bike To Work Day.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Steven Chu's efforts to curb U.S. energy consumption included Washington, D.C.'s Bike To Work Day.

Steven Chu is an optimist. The secretary of energy, who won a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997, believes science can solve many of the nation's energy challenges.

"Scientists by their nature are very optimistic," he said. "We learn about Newton, about Maxwell, about Einstein. And yet you want to do some science that can contribute on the shoulders of those giants — you've got to be pretty optimistic.

"That doesn't mean I'm a cockeyed optimist," he cautioned. "You've still got to come up with the goods."


Chu knows cleaner coal, new nuclear power plants, more renewable energy — will take time. In a conversation with NPR's Steve Inskeep, he lays out ambitious plans for the country's energy future, including:

  • Listen: Clean coal power plants: within 10 years?

  • Listen: Building nuclear power plants economically and safely.


Who Should Do The Heavy Lifting?

Chu's confidence in technology raises politically difficult questions — maybe even politically explosive ones:

Should science alone be expected to quench a nation's thirst for fuel?

Is technology the best weapon against climate change, or should Americans be called upon to radically alter their lives — for example, to live in smaller homes, or move closer to work if possible?

Chu says he favors more moderate steps, such as buying energy-efficient appliances and learning how to put your computer in sleep mode to save electricity.

"One of the fears people have is that the price of energy will increase," Chu says. "But at the same time, since we waste so much energy, the goal [of] the Department of Energy is to help the American public simply reduce its energy bill."

As an example, Chu cites California, which instituted energy reforms in the 1970s and was able to stabilize its consumption and reduce costs, even as much of the nation's energy appetite surged.

100 Energy Servants

Chu has a vivid way of describing how Americans use — and overuse — energy: before the Industrial Revolution, power was supplied by humans and animals. Today, Chu says, we should imagine that "every person in the United States uses energy as if they had 100 personal servants at their beck and call," cleaning their carpets, or traveling to the supermarket.

Chu will not push the analogy further — by calling on Americans to reduce their "servants" by half or even more, for example. "It's going to take time for the United States to change," he said.

But he adds: "there is a sense of urgency — because it will take so much time."

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