Q&A: Steven Chu on returning to Stanford, his time as U.S. Energy Secretary

After four years as the secretary of energy, Nobel laureate Steven Chu is returning to Stanford University as a professor of physics and molecular and cellular physiology. He talks about his work in Washington and how he thinks science and technology can better guide public policy.

After serving four years as secretary of energy, Steven Chu is returning to Stanford as professor of physics and molecular and cellular physiology.

U.S. Department of EnergySteven Chu at podium

Former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

At Stanford, Chu plans to engage students and faculty from across campus to develop ways to facilitate addressing the country's energy problems, focusing on new pathways to sustainable, carbon dioxide-neutral energy. His "Chu Group" will also continue its efforts in applying new biophysical techniques to the study of biological systems, with an eye toward disease research.   

During his time at the Department of Energy, Chu launched several initiatives, such as ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy), the Energy Innovation Hubs and the Clean Energy Ministerial, to nurture the development of high-risk, high-reward technologies.

As the first scientist to head the department, Chu encouraged a constructive, collegial culture among his team. He personally helped identify and recruit a dozen leading scientists and engineers to join the march toward a sustainable energy future. Combined, his efforts helped double the deployment of renewable energy in the United States.

Prior to his Cabinet post, Chu was the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of physics and of molecular and cell biology at the University of California-Berkeley. These appointments followed his long tenure as a professor of physics and applied physics at Stanford, during which he helped launch the university's Bio-X program and the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. He was the co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 for his contributions to the laser cooling and trapping of atoms.

Tonight, Chu will give the 30th annual Bunyan Lecture, titled, "Dr. Chu Goes to Washington," in which he will talk about why he left academia to join the Obama administration. He'll also provide a historical perspective on how science and technology transformed the world in the past, and how it must change our present course for the future. Tonight's event, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Braun Mudd Chemistry Lecture Hall, is open to the public.

As energy secretary, you encouraged better collaboration between science and technology and government to tackle the biggest problems of the day. What's the No. 1 problem on your list?

Climate change. We're heading into an era where if we don't change what we're doing, we're going to be fundamentally in really deep trouble. We're already in trouble. So we have to transition to better solutions.

We're not too far away from producing a lot of renewable energy, and doing it cheaply. Solar power is going to become cheaper and cheaper – costs have plummeted three-fold in six years, partly because of the dropping price of modules and electronics. Wind energy is within 15 percent of the cost of new natural gas energy, and the DOE predicts that that cost will cross over within one or two decades, so we need to start to plan the transition system that can conduct more wind energy.

But right now, we're not prepared. As technology continues to race forward – battery technology has advanced faster in the past five years than what I've seen in the [previous] 15 years – we need policy to guide and anticipate development. It takes decades to change things like infrastructure, and so people have to think about that today. Otherwise, progress slows down, and we emit more carbon and get into more trouble environmentally.

What's one way that science and technology could easily and effectively help guide change in this regard?

Consider solar energy. We fundamentally need to think about new business models, because right now the utility companies are getting worried as solar and wind energy drop in price. People are installing more solar panels on their homes, because the cost of technology has dropped, but the licensing costs have not come down. If your home produces enough solar energy that it is net-zero, then there are times when your solar panels are putting energy into the utility company's distribution system, and the company has to pay you for that energy.

That's an economic burden on them, because they're paying you the retail price, which is roughly double what they pay wholesale energy providers. As more people install solar, ultimately rates will go up.

One model that I've proposed is making the utility company, or some third party, responsible for owning, installing and maintaining all the rooftop solar. What the company gets out of it is they have systems that they know about and can control how they function and know how to fix them. Ten years from now, the company can install a battery in the house that stores some of that energy for the house, but also can be called upon to help balance the distribution system, which they're dying to have. The utility has a sustainable industry, and the consumer gets a cheaper rate of electricity and feels good about using carbon-free energy, so everybody gains if you have this system.

If distribution companies and regulators got behind this, then all of a sudden they're making money by deploying solar-energy systems, instead of fighting it or dragging their feet. It's now in the profit/win column. You have to allow people to make money; that's what motivates them. We need to be thinking about these changes now, because industries don't turn on a dime.

Now, I didn't invent this idea. AT&T telephone system used this model for 80 years. They owned the phone, everyone paid universal carrier rates, they maintained the equipment, and if your phone broke, you called them and they fixed it. It was a very robust service for consumers, and AT&T had a customer for life.


Washington, D.C. would seem to be a good place to implement these types of change. What drew you back to Stanford?

It was simply time for a change, but I hope to continue working on some of the same issues. For instance, while I was secretary of the DOE, I became very interested in the economics of energy. At Stanford, I can walk across campus and work with hardcore numerical people and economists to rethink the way we analyze data and energy.

It's also a chance to stimulate interest in students and young people. In the academic world, you can establish new ways of looking at things, and you generate students and postdocs and can collaborate with other talented professors to do something that works, and then pass it on and it spreads dramatically. I've had something like 45 students in my group, and more than 30 of them are now professors around the world, and they have students, and some of those scientific children have children, and they have more. I have scientific great-grandchildren! That's how you have lasting influence in a certain sense. If you teach students how to think in a different way, that's how you move forward.

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, bccarey@stanford.edu