In every way, Dr. Steven Chu was the perfect choice to be Obama's Secretary of Energy. Chu fervently believes that basic science and applied science (technology) can solve any problem, thus allowing unlimited growth to continue indefinitely. Among the problems which can be solved are those which result from unlimited growth itself (e.g. global warming). Chu is not the kind of person who might question the idea that Progress is inevitable—for him, it is, if only we throw enough dollars into basic research to achieve the breakthroughs required to get humanity off the hook.
Thus Steven Chu is a man of Science, but, more fundamentally, he is a man of Faith.
Reverend Chu announced his resignation last week. He will return to academia.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced today he will leave his post once President Barack Obama names a successor. "I would like to return to an academic life of teaching and research," Chu wrote in a lengthy letter to employees at the Department of Energy (DOE), adding that he will stay on the job at least through the end of this month.
His leaving was much lamented by the type of person who thinks that renewable energy will be humankind's salvation, but one look at this chart might persuade us otherwise.
From the Energy Information Administration's 2013 Annual Energy Outlook (AEO, early release). The EIA is part of the Department of Energy.
Although many of you will be skeptical about whether we will actually get all those BTUs from oil and other liquids up to 2040, I call your attention to the BTUs we are expected to get from renewables and liquid biofuels. Yes, Brother Chu was very interested in achieving breakthroughs (and reducing costs) in solar electricity, or in producing better batteries for plug-in vehicles, but it seems to me that his first love was the basic science which would allow us to replace crude oil with advanced biofuels (from algae, switchgrass, etc.).
A long time ago, I wrote a post called The Secretary Of Synthetic Biology in which I criticized Reverend Chu's scattershot research approach to replacing oil with "4th generation" biofuels. I will not quote from that work today, but it is even more relevant today than it was when I wrote it in 2009, if only because more time has passed and we are still awaiting salvation from a biofuels miracle.
Despite the grim picture depicted in the EIA's Figure 7 above, and regardless of the real numbers going forward, most of America's future energy will come from fossil fuels. And despite this clear necessity, Reverend Chu wrote a defiant letter extolling his own achievements as Secretary of Energy. I'll quote the relevant part.
Four years ago, ARPA-E was a vision described in the report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. I was a member of that committee, but never dreamed that I would be asked to take the concept to reality. ARPA-E was designed to support high-risk, high reward technology development; to swing for game-changing home runs that can fundamentally transform energy technologies. The program has earned the respect of industry and academia for its outstanding funding choices, and active, thoughtful program management.
Its success was the result of the assembly of an extraordinarily talented group of individuals. This team would engage in active discussions that spilled into the evenings. They challenged each other with honest and frank discussions over their competing programs, and created an ARPA-E fellows program that was able to recruit some of the best recent graduates.
Did we hit any home runs?
What have been the early results? ARPA-E was described by Fred Smith of Fed Ex in his ARPA-E Summit Keynote address that in his opinion, ARPA-E was best government funding program he has ever seen. In the first few years, 11 of the companies funded with $40 million dollars have attracted more than $200 million in combined private investment. While it is too early to tell if we have home runs like ARPA-net, there are a number of investments that have certainly rounded second base.
Here Brother Chu claims we have hit some doubles, but it's too early to tell whether these 2-baggers will become round trips.
Despite the fact that Chu has declared victory here, I would remind him and all the others who think renewables will save us that it has been "too early to tell" for about 35 years now. And if we look at Figure 7 above, we see many quadrillions of BTUs from crude oil, natural gas and coal, but not nearly so many from solar, wind, hooch or cooking grease. (1 quadrillion = 1,000,000,000,000,000.)
I would further remind Reverend Chu (and all those other deluded people) that global warming and ocean acidification are not going to wait around to see how our science experiments turn out. This is not Baseball; this is Real Life.
Before I end this post, I would like to point out a specific contradiction in Brother Chu's final missive. In his Swan Song, Chu goes to great lengths to point out (to his "skeptic" Solyndra-obsessed political opponents) that climate change is a real and present danger to humanity. Ironically, he does not seem to understand the fundamental critique I've made in this post. Be that as it may, the specific contradiction I have in mind can be found in these two passages about the threat of global warming.
The average temperature of our planet is rising, with majority of the temperature increase occurring in the last thirty years. During the three decades from 1980 to 2011, the number of violent storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, as tabulated by the reinsurance company Munich Re, has increased more than three-fold. They also estimate that the financial losses follow a trend line that has gone from $40 billion to $170 billion dollars per year. Most of those losses were not insured, and the country suffering the largest losses by far is the United States. As the President said in his recent Inaugural Address, "some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."
OK, now contrast that passage with this one.
Ultimately we have a moral responsibility to the most innocent victims of adverse climate change. Those who will suffer the most are the people who are the most innocent: the world's poorest citizens and those yet to be born. There is an ancient Native American saying: "We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." A few short decades later, we don't want our children to ask, "What were our parents thinking? Didn't they care about us?"
Did you catch it? On the one hand, the country suffering the largest losses by far was the United States. On the other hand, those who will suffer the most will be the world's poorest citizens. The United States is in sad shape, sorry to say, but it is still among the richest countries in the world in terms of the total size of its economy, even if many of its citizens are in a permanent slide toward grinding poverty, or are already there.
As usual, Reverend Chu wants his cake and he wants to eat it too by giving himself time to solve our problems—we'll be OK, it's the poor (current or unborn) who are (or will be) fucked. Nobody on Earth will be off the hook as the climate deteriorates in the future.