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A scientist who is on tap, on top

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu attends a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on a clean energy economy and reducing global warming pollution.

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U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu attends a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on a clean energy economy and reducing global warming pollution.

Whether Steven Chu, America's energy secretary, would be flattered or horrified by the comparison is unclear, but he and Margaret Thatcher have something important in common. They are both scientists who have risen to political power.

That Chu has a Nobel Prize for physics, whereas Thatcher swiftly abandoned chemistry for the more lucrative pastures of the law, does not make the comparison unfair. What matters is that both of them understand something that some politicians from softer intellectual backgrounds often seem to forget: You cannot negotiate with nature. Nor can you ignore it, for it will not go away.

Thatcher showed her mettle in this regard in 1989, when she became the first politician of stature to raise the alarm about global warming. When her adviser Crispin Tickell pointed out to her that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was rising and that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas, she got the point instantly and alerted the world in a speech to the United Nations.

Chu's job is harder: He is charged with spotting, nurturing and promoting promising energy technologies, thereby helping America to create the tools that the world needs to wean itself off fossil fuels.

He certainly has the qualifications to do so. President Barack Obama poached him from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which he had directed since 2004, and which he was busy shaping into a center for the study of alternative energy. He had, for example, negotiated a $500 million deal with BP, one of the world's biggest oil companies, to base its Energy Biosciences Institute there.

He is also a man who thinks big. While Chu was at Berkeley, he conceived the idea of a global "glucose economy," to supplant mankind's dependence on oil. Fast-growing crops would be planted in the tropics, where sunlight is abundant. They would be converted into glucose (of which cellulose, which makes up much of the dry weight of a plant, is a polymer) and the glucose would be shipped around much as oil is today, for eventual conversion into biofuels and bioplastics.

That idea might not go down well with energy nationalists, who want America to declare independence from all hot and unreliable countries, whether oil producers or agricultural powers, but it shows vision on the scale needed to deal with global warming.

Another example of his unorthodox thinking is his observation that painting the roofs of buildings around the world white and using light-colored road surfaces rather than blacktop would reflect a lot of sunlight back into space — possibly enough to have an effect on global warming as big as taking every car in the world off the road for a decade. There are plenty of scientists with such notions, but they are seldom in a position to convert their visions into reality.

That, of course, requires money. Fortunately, Chu has it. Besides his department's annual budget of $26 billion, he has got his hands on $39 billion of the stimulus package. So he is able to spend like a drunken sailor when he chooses.

Last month, for example, he announced that Ford would receive a loan of $6 billion to make its gasoline-powered cars more efficient, while Nissan and a small California firm called Tesla Motors would get loans of $2 billion and $465 million respectively to push forward with electric cars.

Then he followed this up by saying that $3.9 billion would be made available for revamping the American electricity grid. Building a "smart grid" is an important part of his plan. It will let wind and solar power be transmitted to the cities, and smooth out peaks and troughs in demand — for example by feeding power to the batteries of parked electric cars at night, and sucking it out of them during the day, if their owners agree.

It is not all largesse, though. The budget for hydrogen-powered vehicles, once the darlings of the alternative-energy lobby, has been slashed. Chu does not believe in them.

The long-awaited Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump has also been axed. He reckons the existing system of local storage is good for a few more decades and is looking into an old idea for dealing with nuclear waste: "burning" it in special reactors that will transmute it into more benign elements, thus eliminating the objection that nuclear power simply dumps the problem of waste in the laps of future generations.

It has not, of course, all been plain sailing. Chu had little role in shaping the most important element of America's energy policy, the laws on climate change. And in the shark-infested waters of Washington, Chu's forthright pronouncements on energy policy, which have not always conformed with Obama's views, have prompted a feeding frenzy.

For decades, the civilian side of the Energy Department pottered along quietly. Oil, coal and gas were familiar to the point of boredom, and no new nuclear plants were being built (the department also looks after nuclear weapons, but that is another matter). Wags used to say that the one essential qualification for being energy secretary was not to know anything about energy. That was what advisers were for. As no less a politician than Winston Churchill put it, scientists should be on tap, not on top.

Ideally the development of low-carbon technologies would be left to the market, encouraged by a suitable carbon price. But Congress has entrusted much of the work to Chu's department, and given that many of the choices it confronts are scientific and technological, it helps to have someone who knows the subject in charge. If he can help communicate the immutability of natural laws to America's almost equally obdurate politicians, then on top, rather than on tap, is where he deserves to be.

A scientist who is on tap, on top 07/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 25, 2009 4:30am]
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