Energy Nominee Steven Chu On Climate Change
NPR's Christopher Joyce spoke with Chu in October 2007. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
On Reducing Energy Consumption
I am actually optimistic — I will be dead before this will be true or false — that the world can, in a peak population of 9.5 or 10 billion, which is now the prediction, have a carbon output that actually can be reduced significantly from what we are doing today.
That means, for example, that developed countries, especially the United States, have to go down by factors of 4 or more. With new tech coming online, and things that one hopes to develop, the goal is not to say: 'OK, everybody uses less energy, don't heat your homes, don't light your homes, don't use AC.' That is not the goal. The goal is to have a standard of living that is carbon neutral and works well with the world. And I think it's possible.
Europe is going ahead. It's become national priorities in many countries in Europe. In the United States, it is not the major priority to get on a carbon diet.
On Challenges To Creating Environmental Policy
It's a slow-boiling crisis ... It is fundamentally a crisis situation, but a very different one because the scale is so much different. Unlike the ozone layer and the substitute for Freon, where a quick technological fix actually can right it quickly, [energy challenges are much more complex].
Let's talk biofuels, which is only about 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget. Take refineries, and say you want to build up a [cellulosic biofuel] industry, to get 10 percent additive into gasoline. You're talking about $3 billion investment in biorefineries. It's a small amount, but it's big if you're a company who wants to make this commercially viable. You want to be guaranteed that it will survive; quite often, you do need subsidies. But you always have to start with a sunset clause and a clear signal that, 'don't start anything that won't survive.'
On Getting Businesses To Reduce Carbon Footprints
A price on carbon is absolutely one of the — if I had to name six things, that would certainly be one of them. It's not the be-all, end-all; you need other things. There are certainly regulatory things, like [building] insulation, or higher fuel standards will also be needed — but certainly a price on carbon. Now here's the problem with the price on carbon ... right now, the stakeholders of various kinds — they want to minimize it, and they, most importantly, want loopholes.
In a price on carbon, whether it's a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system or it's a mixture, I more want to see, over a 10 to 15 year period, no loopholes, a steady increase. Give people some time to adjust, but say, 'There's no hiding.' In 15 years, we'll be at a certain point where it will actually make a difference.
On Working Now To Protect Future Generations
People who will bear the brunt of it are those who've just been born or about to be born. We're talking about things in the later half of the century that will really come to [affect us]. For the next 10 years or so, Washington will be a little bit warmer or so, but that's manageable. When water supplies go away in the later half of the 21st century, that's less manageable. And when huge population displacement occurs, that's less manageable. And, well, those people can't protest on the Mall. They're not born yet.
Nobel Winner Chu To Land Top Energy PostNPR.org, December 10, 2008 · Steven Chu, a renowned physicist and green-energy advocate, has reportedly been tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to run the federal Department of Energy. Chu runs the DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and he has made climate change the new centerpiece of his career.
Chu's resume contains an item never before seen on a DOE director's CV: a Nobel Prize in physics. Chu, who comes from an immigrant family of scientists, shared the prize with two other physicists in 1997.
His contribution was an ingenious set of experiments that captured atoms in different kinds of "atom traps." He created the traps by firing lasers at right angles to each other. The laser light functioned as a sort of "optical molasses," according to the Nobel committee. Individual atoms slowed down within the laser beams, enough so that scientists could study their inner structure.
Chu did most of that work at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. He went from there to a research position at Stanford University, then took over the Lawrence Berkeley lab in 2004. He is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Lab staff declined to comment on the choice of Chu for DOE. News agencies have cited sources at the Obama transition team as confirming his selection.
A Democratic aide also said Obama has settled on former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner for a new position coordinating White House policy on energy, climate and environmental issues.
A Rising Star
Scientists in the energy field have watched Chu's star rise over the past few years as he turned the lab toward research in new forms of low-carbon energy.
"Steve has given the lab clear and innovative direction. He has taken the lab's strength in energy efficiency ... and pushed it along the whole spectrum, from basic to applied science," says Dan Kammen, a physicist and energy analyst at UC, Berkeley.
And having a Nobel laureate running DOE, Kammen adds, "is a neat sign for science."
Chu has turned his attention in the past few years to building financial support for alternative energy research. He helped win half a billion dollars from British Petroleum to fund an Energy Biosciences Institute, which focuses research at several institutions, including his lab, on producing biofuels from plant materials. In fact, some of Chu's earlier work in physics applied techniques similar to atom-trapping to biological materials such as DNA.
Urging Action On Global Warming
Chu has used his reputation to urge action to slow global warming. In a PBS news program last year, he said it was his obligation.
"In the last five or six years," he said, "I was following this as an interested citizen. And it became more and more apparent to me that the dangers, the potential risks of climate change were looking like they were more and more likely, and that ... as a scientist, a responsible scientist, you really have to think of what you can do to help with this problem."
Chu also established the Helios Center within the Berkeley lab, aimed at research on new fuels for transportation. These include making biofuels from biomass, using algae in fermentation tanks to make fuel, and applying solar energy to convert water and carbon dioxide to fuels.
The Coal Question
The Department of Energy is the leading supporter of energy research within the federal government. As director, Chu will have to grapple with powerful supporters of coal, who have backed new DOE research on turning coal into liquid fuel. The department has also dedicated tens of millions of dollars to designing new power plants that capture carbon dioxide from coal before turning it into a gas to make electricity.
Much of coal's future — it currently is used to make about half the country's electricity — depends on research funded by DOE on how to bury that captured carbon dioxide so it won't rise into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.
A major part of DOE's budget is dedicated to nuclear weapons research and maintaining the military's nuclear arsenal. Among the biggest tasks facing the agency is disposing of nuclear waste from civilian power plants and government weapons labs around the country.
The leading candidate for a dump site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, has been mired in technical and legal debate for years and is decades behind schedule.
"New" ethanol to face crunch time under a Chu DOE
Thursday, December 11 09:48 pmTimothy Gardner
The next U.S. energy secretary, a long-standing champion of producing ethanol from non-food crops rather than corn, could face hurdles in moving the next-generation biofuel from the laboratory to the gasoline station. Skip related content
Steven Chu, Obama's pick for the head of the Department of Energy, is a steadfast supporter of next-generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol, expected to be made from the tough woody bits of crops like grasses and fast growing trees as well as plant and timber waste.A 2007 report co-chaired by Chu, and commissioned by the governments of China and Brazil, called for "intensive research" into production of cellulosic, which relies on technology like isolating microbes, or using large amounts of heat and steam, to break down the tough bits into fuel.
Chu, the head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Nobel physics laureate, also helped organize the Energy Biosciences Institute, a lab focusing on next-generation biofuels funded with $500 million from oil major BP Plc.
He has been a staunch opponent of the current U.S. corn-based ethanol system, which was widely blamed for spiking food and grain prices this summer, calling it "not the right crop for biofuels," at a conference this spring in the country's agriculture heartland.
Corn ethanol has also been criticized for environmental problems such as helping to lead to a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico as the extra fertilizer the grain requires washes from fields to the Mississippi River to the ocean.
But next-generation biofuels are no quick fix. They are more expensive than gasoline, a problem that was tricky when oil hit $147 a barrel over the summer, but even more difficult now as it trades under $50 a barrel.
"Assuming that developers can isolate the microbes to develop the fuel ... we might still face a considerable hurdle in moving it to an industrial-scale process," said Tim Evans, an energy analyst for Citi Futures Perspective in New York.
U.S. mandates call for the blending of 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol, or about the output of one of the roughly 170 U.S. corn-based ethanol plants, into gasoline by 2010. That compares to the mandate's requirement of blending 12 billion gallons per year of corn-based ethanol in 2010.
"The heat is on to see if there is actually support behind the mandate," said Sander Cohan, a motor fuels analyst at Energy Security Analysis Inc, in Boston.
He said Chu will likely find he has to convince Congress that cellulosic biofuels deserve more research and development money.
Chu could also lead development of biofuels beyond cellulosic. The 2007 report he co-chaired also called for investments in development of butanol, "or other forms of biofuels that may be superior to ethanol."
Butanol, a fuel touted as more efficient and more easily shipped than ethanol that can be made from corn or sugar cane, is being developed by chemicals maker DuPont Inc and BP.
(Editing by Christian Wiessner)
Published: 5 hours ago, 17:11 EST, December 15, 2008
Diverse landscapes are better: Policymakers urged to think broadly about biofuel crops
"Corn is a less favorable habitat for many ladybird beetles (ladybugs) and other beneficial insects that feed on pests such as the soybean aphid," said Doug Landis, MSU professor of entomology. "As we plant more corn, we reduce the ability of that landscape to supply beneficial predators to control pests in soybeans and other crops. This results in increased pesticide use and yield losses. This research estimates the value of this biological pest control service in soybeans (in the four states) to be about $240 million each year."
The research was published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
From 2006 to 2007, corn acreage increased by 19 percent in the United States, reducing landscape diversity in many areas, according to the scientists.
"Over-reliance on any one crop is likely to reduce the value of natural control of pest insects by beneficial insects," said Scott Swinton, MSU professor of agricultural, food and resource economics and paper co-author. "If we look at farmers who grow only corn and soybeans, increasing corn acreage and reducing soybean acreage will probably mean higher costs for soybean pest control. Beneficial insects help control pests so growers have lower pest control costs."
Both Landis and Swinton are members of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, a partnership between Michigan State and the University of Wisconsin-Madison funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct basic research aimed at solving complex problems in converting natural materials to energy.
The researchers say achieving the biofuel production levels mandated by Congress will take millions of acres to provide the necessary raw materials and will change agricultural landscapes. Understanding how these landscape changes affect the sustainability of biofuel production is the overall goal of the research.
"Ultimately, we hope this helps policymakers think about which and how much of any biofuel crop, as well as the location of the crop, makes sense for a particular landscape," Landis said. "We could choose to create monocultures of a single biofuel crop or have diverse mixtures of many biomass sources including perennial trees and grasses as well as corn. Diverse landscapes often support higher levels of vital ecosystems services such as pest suppression and pollination. Our goal is to provide information so people can make more informed decisions."
Source: Michigan State University
Sorghum to ethanol plant begins productionABC - December 12, 2008, 12:18 pm
Australia's first purpose-built sorghum to ethanol plant has begun production on the Darling Downs in southern Queensland.
Dalby Bio-Refinery Limited says the plant cost $85 million to build, and will produce 70 million litres of ethanol a year.
Director Chris Harrison says the refinery started putting grain through the hammer mill this week, and will reach full production next month.
"We have a mixture of contracts," he said.
"A small portion of ours will go into the industrial market and the majority of it will go into the petrol market.
"That's a mixture of some of the larger independents in Queensland and other states and some of the majors."
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