Sec. Chu Online Town Hall

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Sec. Chu Online Town Hall
Secretary Steven Chu hosted an online town hall to discuss the clean energy and innovation agenda President Obama laid out in his 2011 State of the Union address. (January 26, 2011)
Secretary Steven Chu
Energy Department Video

SECRETARY STEVEN CHU:  All right, thank you.  I’d like to first thank you for being here and all those out there in ether-land, cyberspace also, for joining us. 

I just want to briefly make a couple comments before handing it over to questions. 

Last night, President Obama laid out strategy for America to create jobs and win the future, and there were central themes going throughout his remarks.

One was – first and foremost, was unleashing the innovation machine in the U.S., and I’ll have more to say about that.  But part of it also is including the education of Americans so that our young people have the skills to compete, and another is we have a mature infrastructure and we need to rebuild that infrastructure to be more competitive going forward.  That, too, will create many, many jobs and help us become competitive in the future.

So let me talk about energy.  The president talked about a Sputnik moment.  What was the Sputnik – (audio break) – to 1956, I believe it was, a little grapefruit-sized globe starts circling around the Earth, passing over the United States.  And clearly it showed that at that point in time, the Soviet Union had a space technology that was superior to the United States.  We were not able to put up a satellite.

And it was a wakeup call.  We had fallen behind technologically.  And with regard to that, President Eisenhower said, remarkably, that the response is not to put more money into missiles but the response is to look at our science infrastructure, our education infrastructure and in the long run, this is what’s going to make us competitive.

Then in I think 1961, 1962, President Kennedy, in two speeches now known as his moon shot speeches, say:  By the end of this decade, we will put a man on the moon.  We will lead in this space race. 

And so the Sputnik moment is the realization – today’s Sputnik moment is the realization that we are no longer the technological leaders in all the sectors of innovation that we would like to be; that we have lost the lead in some of these instances, many of them having to do with energy; that other countries have recognized that the energy technologies the world will need in the future are now being developed not only in the United States but most notably in China, in Korea, in Japan and in Europe.  These are our competitors.  And so the – it’s the realization that technological leadership and innovation cannot be taken for granted. 

Now, having said that, the president also said that we do have the greatest innovation machine in the world.  And with – given the right direction, we can use this innovation machine to be competitive in all those things; in a world where we expect oil prices to be higher, in a world where we expect the world will need cleaner sources of energy; where we will need to be able to generate energy from the sun, the wind and other things.  And in a way, where it’s a race to make those sources of energy competitive with our current-generation sources of energy, with fossil fuels.  Because the people who in that will certainly have a head up on what you can sell internationally on this – in this market

So the president called for the creation of three new energy-innovation hubs.  As you know, these are hubs where you put scientists and engineers, ideally under the same roof, marching towards a common goal.  It needs to do the scientific discovery but it also needs to do the things that can actually lead to the private sector picking it up and taking it to the marketplace.  And these innovation hubs you can think of as the Apollo projects of our time in various sectors of the energy industry.

The president also reiterated his commitment to putting a million advanced technology vehicles on the road by 2015.  And this goes – that will greatly reduce our dependence on foreign oil and jumpstart the American auto industry.  It is a – quite frankly, another race. 

Countries all over the world have recognized that the electrification of personal vehicles in city and suburban driving could offload a lot of the dependency on imported oil.  And the country that – and the industries that develop the technologies where you can go 300, 400 miles on a single charge in a vehicle that’s cost-competitive with today’s internal combustion engines will win big.

Let me give you example and this is indeed an announcement.  The national labs are doing a great deal in the research and development.  Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, which has been a leader in advanced battery R&D, has developed some cutting-edge cathode technology. 

(Audio break.) 

SEC. CHU:  This technology has now been licensed and further developed by California-based start-up called – (audio break) – agreement to use the NV advanced battery technology and energy.

Right now, photovoltaic solar energy costs more than electricity being generated by fossil fuel and again, in response to the Sputnik moment and the calling for a moon shot by President Kennedy, Department of Energy has a similar “sun shot.”  And so this is – we looked at what companies are doing today, what they have in their business plans and what we can do to accelerate these things, to drive down the cost of electricity generation by photovoltaics. 

So, before the end of this decade, we believe with Department of Energy research and development help we can drive the cost of electricity generation from photovoltaics to be competitive with fossil fuels without subsidy.

Now, imagine a world where that is true and before the end of this decade and if we’re the developers of this technology, this is a huge worldwide market and it will just take off.  And it is going to be a race of which countries, which companies develop these technologies.

Finally, to drive the innovation machine more broadly, the president has set a very ambitious goal of having 80 percent of Americans’ electricity generation come from clean fuel sources by 2035.  Now, you might say:  Is that overly ambitious? 

Well, first, you have to understand from what the base is.  If we look at all the ways we generate electricity, with a working definition – and this has to be fleshed out in our discussions with Congress – but this is going to be a cooperative venture.  It needs, from its very roots, bipartisan support. 

Roughly speaking, right now we’re about 40 percent clean energy, the way you can define it.  If you define it in a very strict way of just no carbon emissions, that includes hydropower, sun, wind, nuclear – we’re over 30 percent. 

And so if you put it in that context, is it ambitious?  Yes.  The moon shot was ambitious.  Is it over-the-top, we can’t achieve that?  No.  We think we can achieve that and again, before the end of this decade.

So we are in a race.  In my way of thinking, this race is much more important in terms of the prosperity of not only five years, 10 years from today but next year and the year after that.  This is an economic race to develop those technologies the world will demand and want and buy and so it’s going to have, in many respects, a much more profound influence on our lives going into the future.  And this is what the president is calling for. 

We had our Sputnik moment.  We watched countries like China aggressively say that everything in the energy efficiency, energy generation sector is a key industry.  We’re going to do it for ourselves but we also want to export it and we can, again going back to the theme, the American innovation machine is absolutely the best in the world:  the most inventive, the best research universities, the national laboratories, the entrepreneurs – you  name it.

And here’s another one that we – our future jobs, our future wealth will depend on it and I think we can rise to the challenge. 

All right?


SEC. CHU:  With that, I’ll take questions.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Secretary Chu.  We’re going to start with a couple of questions from our online audience and then we’ll move to our in-person audience and then sort of rotate between the two for as much time as we have.

So a question submitted by e-mail from Ivan Graff (ph).  He’s quoting the president from last night saying, “At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they're using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities.” 

“Is the secretary at liberty to comment on how Oak Ridge National Laboratory is doing this and what gains in terms of efficiency or production are expected?”

SEC. CHU:  Sure.  There’s a short-term and there’s a long-term and mid-term view of what we’re doing.  On the short term, if you look at our nuclear fleet of over 100 reactors, we have been – it’s a very good new story – we have been increasingly, while learning to operate the reactor, we’ve been actually keeping them up longer so they’re actually generating power for longer. 

There was a period of time that, 20 years ago, it was maybe 75 percent of the time, they’re generating power.  Now it’s about 92 percent.  And we can improve – we can improve that.  There’ll be designs in fuel rods so that we can extract, let’s say, 2 percent of the energy of the fuel in a fuel rod rather than the 1 percent we have today before you have to shut down and refuel.  That means you can go longer on routine refueling maintenance.  We can improve the output of these reactors.  That’s in short term. 

Doubling the time before refueling is a big deal.  But we actually have bigger ambitions of actually increasing the productivity of these reactors, a longer-term research extracting more and more of the energy content from the fuel, not – you know, we’re not going to be happy with 2 percent; we want 20, 30, 40 percent. 

Okay, this is a good thing.  Imagine going from 2 percent to 20 percent, you know?  Ten percent – 10 times less fuel for the same amount of electricity generated; 10 times less spent fuel for the same amount of electricity generated.  And we want to go even further than that.

So this is a research program.  But the short term, it will have the effect of effectively, out of the 107 or 106 reactors, adding seven or eight new nuclear reactors online with no additional investment because the productivity will increase.  So that’s a big deal and we intend to use supercomputers for a lot of things like that to improve the productivity of existing technology and developing new technology.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  We’ll take another question by e-mail from Joe Speece (ph) who asks:  “Energy storage is essential for the development of wind and solar power.  Is the DOE going to increase support for energy storage technologies?”

SEC. CHU:  Very much so.  We have, for the first time, a concerted look across all the parts of the DOE from the Office of Electricity, from Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, from the Office of Science.  Energy storage is a very big deal and it occurs in different swaths.  Even short-term energy storage helps wind farms become much more productive so they don’t have to feather their blades as the amount of wind varies. 

So energy storage in various – either at utility scale or short term is a big deal to make our grid more efficient but also as we go to more renewables, which are variable.  If we go to 20, 30, 50 percent renewables, we will need an ever-increasing amount and is a very big part of our research portfolio.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  We’ll take a question from in the audience.  I know we do have some members of the media here and we will have opportunities for media questions at the end but for our invited guest here, if there’s a question?  Can you just identify your name and your organization?

Q:  Hi, Secretary Chu.  My name is Brett Wiley and I’m a field organizer at WeatherizeDC, which is a program of The D.C. Project that’s building an equitable clean energy economy through community-driven weatherization and creation of equitable, local jobs here in the D.C. area.

Last night, the president said, “We measure progress by the success of our people, by the jobs that they find and the quality of jobs – by the quality of life those jobs offer.  Going toward 2035, clean energy jobs will be created if Congress and communities act on the goal of generating 80 percent of our energy from renewables.”

One topic not addressed by the president last night was poverty.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, white unemployment rate is 8.5 percent while black unemployment rate is 15.8 percent.  This is just one example of gaps in access to jobs that create a high quality of life for the chronically unemployed, formerly incarcerated, single parents, people of color and veterans and those gaps continue to widen.

Understanding that you will measure success by the quality of life clean energy jobs create, how will you ensure that those jobs and quality of life are accessible to the chronically unemployed, formerly incarcerated, single parents, people of color and veterans?

SEC. CHU:  Sure.  I mean, there are many programs to address those things.  But let me just say that if you look at what we need to do in order to rebuild the infrastructure, to retrofit homes and buildings, to do all these things, this will require jobs.  This will require jobs over a broad spectrum of Americans.

We also want to use this as an opportunity not only to innovate and get the new inventions, but also to manufacture these products here in the United States.  And so we see this as really, in a certain sense,  a continuation of what we want to do that, going towards economic prosperity – as to your point, going towards economic prosperity – the broad swath of Americans in different things. 

So whether it’s from rural America, and creating more wealth in rural America, to people – to having education programs that compete – get people to actually say, okay, you know, we’re not looking for jobs only for, you know, Ph.D.s or college graduates.  We’re looking for a quality of jobs across the whole country.

And you know, as you know, there are jobs, there are jobs programs that – we are very supportive of people who have been incarcerated, and they come out – and then say, can we help them get a job program?  There are job programs for very many people.  We think this rebuilding of American infrastructure and going and developing these new industries allows a broad swath of the talent in America to be used.

This is something that’s a worthy project.  It’s not something that can be – that will require a lot of people.  And so here’s what you’re doing:  You’re doing something incredibly worthwhile.  You’re doing something good for the future populations, the environment.  But it’s a demand that can’t be outsourced.  It has to be done here in the United States.

So it has all the great things.  And we need a larger American workforce in order to accomplish these goals.  So I think it’s going to affect them.  And we will be very conscious, going forward, of making sure that all Americans have the opportunity to take advantage of this.

MODERATOR:  A question coming in from Twitter.  @erinskime (ph) asks:  “What is your prediction for the biggest clean-energy technology impact of 2011, both in America and in the world?”

SEC. CHU:  2011?  (Chuckles.)  Oh, I don’t know.  I mean, you know, I just – immediately, when I’m asked for predictions, I’m immediately reminded of what Yogi Berra said of predictions:  They’re – are difficult, especially about the future.  (Laughter.) 

It’s hard to say what – because we don’t know – there’s a lot of things we’re investing in, looking for game-changing technologies that could be invented and could come out in 2011.  We probably won’t be sure that it will be game-changing for another couple of years.  So on the research side, I think there’s a lot of exciting things that the Department of Energy invested in.

There’s an ARPA-E summit – just for a little ad – at the end of February, beginning of March, where it takes a particular program and looks at, with a year retrospective, what we’ve invested in, with the – the design of that program was to invest in real home runs, game-changing events.  And although there’s no home run we know about for sure, we see a lot of people rounding second and third base, so it’s looking good.

I think, you know, we have programs to go to energy efficiency where we’re going to be piloting programs to help bring down the costs of retrofits, to overcome – there’s concerted effort across a couple agencies to overcome the financial hurdle of getting low-cost, low-interest, long-term loans to make investments in energy efficiency so that homes and buildings can improve the quality of life and create jobs.

And meanwhile, the Department of Energy, in coordination, will supply the information so people will do – if those pilot programs work, that will have a tremendous impact, because that means you save – if you save money by saving energy, then it needs no government support, in a certain sense, except the information transfer, right, if you provide the mechanism for access to capital and if you provide the information.  And we’re piloting with programs so that you can actually drive down the costs of those retrofits – that, we’ll be piloting in 2011.  That could be a game-changer.  There’s a number of things.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  A question from in the audience.

Q:  Hi.  I’m John Arensmeyer, Small Business Majority.  Is there a mechanism for the various agencies in the government to be working together on this, like Department of Commerce, Small Business Administration, Treasury?  You already talked about some loan programs. 


SEC. CHU:  Sure.


Q:  So is there some sort of structure that’s being put in place to deal with the, you know, the fact this is going to overlap over a number of agencies?

SEC. CHU:  Well, there is a structure.  But there is not only a structure; I mean, unfortunately, Carol Browner announced that she’s stepping down from the head of the – from the Cabinet.  That will – you know, some structure will continue. 

But let me say that regardless of the structure, this is – I’ve been told – I’m a newbie in politics; I don’t know what life was like before – but I’ve been told that this is a highly collaborative Cabinet working with the White House.  And I know from my own dealings with other Cabinet officials, when I go to Shaun Donovan and say, you know, we need to do these things, and he gets all excited about it and runs with that, and when I go talk to Karen Mills about small-business loans to get – we’re talking about the capital investments – it resonates very quickly.  I work with Tom Vilsack on biofuels.  This is wealth creation in rural America, with Department of Interior. 

So at virtually no time have any of the Cabinet members, where they self-assemble or assemble in a structure, is there, you know:  This is my turf, what are you doing here?  (Chuckles.)  I have really never seen that.  And it’s more the opposite, where the secretary of Interior, the secretary of Agriculture, all these people – we freely say, okay, this is what we’re doing.

So it creates a unified approach to how to solve these issues, how to – how to spur on clean energy and spur on innovation and create wealth in rural America and create – secretary of Labor.  So it’s creating wealth over a wide swath of society. 

But we have – we have formal structures.  And that – but the most important thing is – and informally, there’s great enthusiasm, and we’re constantly checking in with each other:  I’ve got this idea, what do you think? – at the principals’ level. 

MODERATOR:  A question from Twitter.  @JewelBayko (ph) asks:  “Definition of clean energy include nuclear and clean coal?” – question mark.  “Clean-coal tech not real yet.  Future aspects?”

SEC. CHU:  Well, right now we don’t have commercial units operating that take coal, capture it and sequester it at commercial scale.  That is true.  And so the issue is, how quickly can we get to this where it’s commercially viable at a price point that Americans can deal with?

Again, this is something which we have taken, over the last year and a half, a very thorough look at what today’s technologies – where today’s technologies are, where they’re going; also, to try to demonstrate in a variety of geological sources that you can sequester for long periods of time safely.  I would agree that it’s not a slam dunk, proven thing, today.  But you know – but we have a game plan to try to figure out how to get there. 

In terms of gas, gas by its very nature, it, roughly speaking, emits half the carbon dioxide as today’s coal technologies; virtually no mercury particulate matter, so inherently cleaner.  But if we’re going to meet our climate goals by mid-century, we’re going to actually have to be capturing carbon from natural gas as well.  And so – but it is a – an important part of how we transition. 

As you may all know, natural gas is used for peaking.  It can be turned on more quickly in today’s technology than coal plants.  And so as we grow on renewables, there has to be a toggling back and forth very quickly, because when the sun stops shining, when the wind stops blowing, you don’t want blackouts.  Energy storage will play an important part of that.  Energy distribution will play an important part of that.

So in the next couple of decades, we’re going to need these sources as we integrate them into our variable sources.  But in the end, you know, I see a very bright future trending further and further to renewables.  And especially if we can get the price point down and the energy storage and transmission issues solved, that will be a natural endpoint.

MODERATOR:  Another question from Twitter – from @millvillgreen (ph) – asks, “With the end of the stimulus, what specific initiatives will the DOE be funding to support energy innovation?”

SEC. CHU:  Well, what we are doing is, we’re looking at all the areas, again, with an overall strategy.  Where does the technology have to go in order to be picked up by the private sector with an endpoint, without subsidy?  And how can the Department of Energy help accelerate that path and make our industries more competitive?

And so we’re doing this in photovoltaics.  We’re doing this in transmission–distribution systems and Smart Grid.  We’re doing this – Smart Grid is a facilitator of sorts, and if done right, it actually makes our energy systems much more efficient and it also can incorporate variable sources as they go to 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 percent. 

So what we do – the best thing we do is in the R&D sector, especially in industries that don’t have a tradition for that.  And as it looks more and more like you want to demo it and deploy it, you’ll have to see, what does industry do, the amounts of funds – I mean, this is a post-stimulus thing, where we will not be having the kind of money to invest in helping deploy as much. 

But we are always looking for how any precious dollars we are given by Congress – how those precious dollars can be used in the most leveraged sort of way.  And then there’s a long explanation – very detailed – but you know, I’d rather handle a few more questions.  And – especially, Dan tells me, make my answers short.  (Chuckles.)

Q:  Sean Garren with Environment America.  I wanted to first of all thank you and the president for your focus on renewable energy and your continued support there.  You answered the clean-coal question, but I think you only covered about half of the problem there. 

So obviously, carbon capture and sequestration can handle some of the emissions.  But how do you move – I don’t see how you would ever make coal clean in terms of how we actually get it, so how we get it from the ground, mining purposes.  And then, with hydraulic fracturing –

SEC. CHU:  Yeah.

Q:  – and the demonstrated threat to our drinking water, how do we make that part of the equation clean?  Or how do we, and how fast can we, move away from fossil fuels completely?

SEC. CHU:  Right.  I think – yes, you raise an important point.  The ability to extract fossil fuel in a safe and clean way is part of the entire equation.  And certainly there are practices like mountaintop removal that could have a profound impact on the environment.  And so that’s in the jurisdiction of the EPA.  And that’s certainly a concern. 

There are certain mining practices, also, that could have severe environmental impacts.  And there are regulations in the federal government that have to address those things, because in the process of mining, in the process of extracting fossil fuels, there are – can be severe environmental problems.

And so the regulatory process is to allow it so that you don’t wreak havoc.  I mean, having lived for three or four months – four months – four-and-a-half months on a Gulf-spill issue – in the process of helping stop that leak, it became very clear that, actually, for very little money, but you know, more thought and better processes, you can actually make it much safer.

In terms of natural gas and the fracking, there’s a very – there’s similar things where – as an example, what you need to do is that the gas sources are actually below the water tables, and so what you need to do as you try to access those gas sources to make sure that the fluids you use to frac don’t get into the freshwater supplies.  That’s actually a technology that we know about, and we have to make sure it’s done correctly.  We also have to make sure the fluids you used, that you recover them, you process them.  You just can’t simply dump them, because that, and again, goes out into the water table.

But these are things – so, you know, it can be done safely, it has to be done safely, okay?  And one can do that.  And so I think the Department of Energy – we have a great deal of expertise how fluid moves around the rocks.  We need to develop this for carbon capture and sequestration.  We need to do this for geological storage of radioactive material.  All sorts of reasons. 

And as I happily found out, we have a lot of expertise in our ability to do engineering calculations and simulations of how this stuff works.  So all those things can be brought to help the U.S. in deep-water drilling and in fracking for the safety of environmental impacts.

MODERATOR:  A question from Twitter, from @AnnaDCDayz (ph). The question is, how is nuclear – “How is nuclear “clean” energy when we have tons of waste with no proven disposal?”

SEC. CHU:  It’s clean in the sense that – I think – I’ve always have said that the waste issue is a solvable issue.  Call me foolish, but I think it’s solvable politically too.  (Chuckles.)  But I think – what – so we have a blue-ribbon commission that’s looking into this, looking into the options.  We now, as I said before, know a lot more than we did in the early 1980s when the nuclear waste act was written.

And so it’s the charge of that commission; will be reporting this summer what their recommendations are.  And it’s a very distinguished commission.  I don’t know what they’re going to report, but I have faith that they’re going to give us some good advice on how to go forward with storing spent fuel.

And again, we have a long-term research program that wants to see if we can take that used fuel – not “spent” fuel, I would call it used fuel – and extract more of the energy content out of it in an economical and – way that’s proliferation-resistant.  And if we do that, that means you can greatly reduce the amount of end-product waste greatly. I don’t mean greatly, I don’t mean by a factor of two or so, in today’s technology.  I mean a factor of 10 or 20 or 50.

All very important stuff – it’s a long-term research project.  But the NRC has just declared that for 50, 60 years, the dry cask storage does not have – pose a threat to the environment.  So we have time.

MODERATOR:  We’ve got another question from the audience.

Q:  Hi, my name is Sia Siong (ph) from Energy Action Coalition.  Last night, Barack Obama mentioned natural gas, nuclear energy, clean energy.  Real clean, renewable energy is top priority for the millennial generation – the biggest voter block in history, the ones that will bear the brunt of the decisions made today.  What will Obama do to ensure clean, renewable energy technology doesn’t harm communities in future generations?

SEC.CHU:  Well, first, there are many levels of – energy has what I would call the effects of local pollution.  This is SOX (ph) – solid oxide, nitric oxides, mercury, particulate matter.  We have EPA regulations that protect the air at that level, and the EPA will continue to do its job.

It also will be looking at greenhouse gases.  Then there was what I would call global pollution, where the effects of generating energy and the carbon emission will – you know, the climate science is each year becoming more and more compelling that there are real risks involved.  And those risks have to be dealt with.

And the good news is, as country after country is beginning to realize that we’re all in this together, there’s a risk, to be sure.  The wealthier countries, countries like the United States should take leadership positions in this.  But even developing companies like China now openly acknowledge this is an issue, that if we continue business as usual, straight from the premier of China, climate change would be devastating to China and the rest of the world, as he told me about a year-and-a-half ago.

And we’re doing something about it, but we’re also doing something about, because we see a world market where the other – the entire world would need these technologies.  So it’s, again, an economic opportunity.

So this whole focus when President Obama says he wants to be – to have a significant – by 2035 a significant reduction of the carbon emissions – this is about that.  Does that help?

Q:  (Off mic.)

SEC.CHU:  Okay.  Well, it – again, the details, as we discussed, is in actually how it affects carbon emissions, but it really is meant to decrease the carbon emissions by some 50, 60 – I forget the exact number, and – so it is on an aggressive path to getting to, by mid-century, the 80 percent reduction in the United States.

MODERATOR:  Will Conrad (ph) on Facebook asks:  “I’m a graduate student in a biomedical field, pharmacology, and I’m interested in pursuing bioenergy research.  Most of the PIs I talk to say researchers historically head toward biomedical research, not in the other direction.  Does DOE have any plans, programs, geared to reverse this trend and get more new biologists into bioenergy?

SEC.CHU:  Well, yes we do, of course, but the other thing is, I would disagree with the assumption.  In the past, I would say that many biologists were drawn into biomedical research.  That’s where the research money was, that’s where the action was, in a certain sense.  But over the last decade, rapidly changing biology and the power of the new biology can be used to help make significant progress in our energy challenges.

And if you – this is why – in part why the Department of Energy is so gung-ho on biofuels.  Biofuels, next generation, going beyond biofuels – it’s huge opportunities for that.  Because biology is such a rapidly advancing science, we see that there are incredible opportunities and we see in the research we fund how rapid the progress is. 

Now, do we have today something that could produce using, let’s say, agricultural wastes, wheat straw, corncobs, lumber chips, you name it, that can produce gasoline at, let’s say, $2 a gallon so it would be competitive in today’s market?  Not yet, but there’s a reasonably high probability we’re going to get there at some time.  I can’t really predict it, but there’s a lot of exciting things.

As many of you may know and may not know, in the last 15 or so years, I’ve become a kind of a biologist, biophysicist, biologist and sort of experienced firsthand how powerful these technologies are and the opportunities they present. 

And when I was at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the joint institute – JBEI, the joint – JBEI, a dually supported organization was started, a collaboration between the University of California Berkeley and Berkeley Lab in Illinois; The Energy Biosciences Institute, supported by BP – these are things that JBEI and EBI have already in a year-and-a-half, two years done remarkable things.

Yeast and bacteria, when fed simple sugars, produce drop-in substitutes for gasoline and diesel fuel.  Already, private companies have picked up these discoveries and are trying to commercialize them.  We don’t know whether it’s going to be successful, but the people of JBEI are continuing. 

They’re doing, kind of, mini on a bench-top pilot thing just to see what the production things are, because they’re not only interested in publishing the paper in Nature that announces this ability to take a while metabolic pathway and put it into a yeast, but actually to make it commercially viable.

So there’s great things going on.  Whether this is going to be one of the landmark discoveries of 2011, I don’t know, because the landmark discovery, in my mind, is not the Nature paper.  It’s, oh my gosh, this is going to work commercially.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  I’ll take a question from napawatt (ph) on Twitter.  “What is the most cost-effective modification a homeowner can make to their home to save the most energy?”

SEC.CHU:  Insulation, sealing up leaky airspaces, whether it’s a leaky door or window or your ductwork.  It’s blocking and tackling.  It’s fundamentals.  Look at your mail slot. 

There was a big draft coming out of my mail slot, so I kind of did a little home thing and put a little plastic and put a magnet so it seals up and put a little – and my wife allowed this, bless her heart – a little quilt on top of the mail slot.  It’s a double mail slot, so when they – you push it through, the mail slot closes, but there’s this quilt that insulates it. 

The first three times the mailman looked, there was a resistance there, because he had to pass this through some bubble foam slot that I – okay?  (Laughter.)  And so they left it in the front door.  So I have this little sign on our mailbox, please push mail through slot – (chuckles) – maybe I can put it in my Facebook page what we did. 

But it would – there was a breeze coming through that door slot, and I couldn’t – and the door is right in front of the stairway, so it’s a breeze coming through the door and going up the stairway and up some leaky space in that home.  And it just – it was ridiculous.

I found – (chuckles) – when we got into the house, we have fiber FiOS, and these guys come in and they drill a hole in your house and they have these wires there.  And there was this big hole there.  They didn’t bother filling up the hole, and then put your hand over it and it’s huge stuff coming out.  So you know, you just stuff in fiberglass and a little foam into the hole and it’s gone, it’s fixed.

Finding out where the leaks are and finding out where the insulation is a little thin?  This is huge.  And so the air conditioning and the winter heating bills of our house went down by a factor of two from the previous owner.

Now, part of it is, we keep it cooler in the winter and we installed two ceiling fans, so we allow the temperature to go up to, let’s say, 78 in the summer – enough to dehumidify.  But a very gentle ceiling fan breeze is, to me, very, very comfortable.  Okay?  So you don’t fix it by just putting your thermostat at 72.

So that’s part of the factor, too, but a lot of the factors, too, is just getting rid of leaks, okay?  Getting rid of leaks.  Heat leaks.

MODERATOR:  As you can tell, this is something the secretary takes very personally.  (Laughter.)

SEC. CHU:  (Chuckles.)

MODERATOR:  I’ll take a question from the audience.

Q:  Hi, Secretary, my name is Drew Sloan.  I’m with OPOWER, so we were very excited to hear your last comment, and I wondered if you could actually comment a bit about what the thinking is in the 2035 plan about how energy efficiency will factor in and what can be done on a federal level, when so many of the regulatory environments are created on the state level?

SEC.CHU:  There’s a couple of things.  We are trying to give people the information they need in order to make the wisest investments.  As I said before, we’re trying to make it so that you can have access to capital, low-cost capital over a long period of time.  So you’re going to have effectively energy like mortgages.  We’re trying to do those things.

We’re trying to pilot things where if you want to weatherize your home, you need a qualified audit, but if you do that, you don’t really know – the typical homeowner doesn’t know who to turn to.  They might ask for estimates from a couple of people.  You know, that also ends up going into the bill when you get a contractor to come.  They’ve got to drive out and then another one and then, okay.

So think – imagine a world where in your block, there are maybe – you know, let’s say there are 20 people on the block and five of them say, yeah,  I think we can go into this and there are known suppliers of this – the audit and the work that you could have confidence in.  So a contractor has got a kind of a good seal of approval.  They know you can do the right stuff and you – the business is now – you audit all five houses all at once.

You blow on the insulation all at once, single truck – choo, choo, choo – okay?  It’s like when they install cable TV, what do they do?  They try to line up lots of subscribers on that street before they trench.  Okay. 

So we are piloting programs like that, because that will greatly reduce the cost, it will give consumer confidence that this is the supplier, that his reputation stands behind this.  And there will be a number of them.  It could be a syndicated thing like a True Value type.  It could be a Lowe’s, a Home Depot-like thing.  You know, there are a lot of opportunities.  We put our call for proposals and I’ve got a very good response.  And so we’re going to be piloting those things.

Small-business loans.  There could be your business, and you know you’re throwing lots of money away on an inefficient, old, leaky building.  If you could only get the capital to do that, you could – your business becomes more – you know, no out-of-pocket expense, but your business becomes much more efficient.

So there are a number of things like that in the meantime.  And those are known technologies, they’re just a mechanism for deploying it.  But in the meantime, we’re also very bullish in thinking of ways of using technologies we already know about in different sectors. 

As an example, today’s automobiles have dozens of computers.  Those computers automatically adjust depending upon the temperature of the engine, the temperature of the outside, the throttle position, they automatically adjust how much fuel goes into the piston, when the timing is, everything.

They tune up your car on a second-by-second basis.  No one actually has car tune-ups anymore, right?  Because the computers do it.  And when you need a car tune-up, what you really do is you take your car in the garage and the garage’s computer talks to your computer and everybody just looks and, okay.  (Chuckles.) 

And we can get buildings to do this, that automatically tune-up buildings.  We already know that if you tune-up a building before you use it, you will save 10-plus percent of the energy, and then after 20 years, it’s out of tune, you can re-tune it up and you will save a tremendous amount of energy.  We have a technology to make it very, very simple, so you don’t need to know the details, because it has to be simple, where the building tunes itself up. 

For example, we right now have a bunch of people in this room.  The building can sense, very inexpensively, using – I happen to know this, using some cheap infrared technology to find out how much CO2 is in this room, up the circulation.  But after everybody leaves, you don’t to – you know, minimal circulation in this room.  Right? 

So that’s a continual tune-up in the way that we think, because it’s electronics, because it’s computers, because it’s computers, because it’s sensors, will be very, very inexpensive.  And to get those into the systems, to get the computer designed so that it automatically helps the architect and the structural engineer design it, it has embedded energy efficiency designs in the programs.  We design airplanes in such a way, we can design buildings in that way too.

So there’s the technology side, there’s lots to be learned, but we already know a lot about things like sealing up air ducts.

MODERATOR:  So we’re running low on time here, so let me take one last question from online.  Lance Lecroix (ph) asks via Facebook, when will SMRs – small modular nuclear reactors – become viable and what are your thoughts on distributed electrical distribution?

SEC.CHU:  Well, I’m a big fan of small modular reactors for a – and let me define it.  These are small nuclear reactors at a scale of, let’s say, 100 megawatts, maybe 150, 200 or less.

Why?  Because if you build a small modular reactor, it used to be that you’d drive down the cost by building a very big reactor, because there are certain fixed costs, approvals, things like that.  And so the reactors have gotten very big.  They are a gigawatt, 1,000 megawatts of power to one-and-a-half gigawatts, 1500 megawatts of power.

They cost a lot of money, typically seven, eight billion dollars.  They need a huge electricity infrastructure to take that one-and-a-half gigawatts of power.  If you think of your utility company and everything you have in project, and all of a sudden you’re going to have to invest $8 billion, that’s a large part of the asset allocation of your company.

You may want – and so what people are doing now as we – they’re – again, they’re doing partnerships. If you can develop – and the so the economy of scale by making big, because of all the other procedures – if you can make them, stamp them out in a single factory, ship them around the United States and around the world, you go to an economy of numbers that compensates for the economy of scale.

That means that side-switch are only designed to have, let’s say, 500 megawatts of power.  You can have two modules or three modules, and that’s the way we do it with gas and coal – a certain number of turbines and you size – right-size it to the thing.

And if it’s stamped out identically, you have better control over the manufacturing because it’s done in a factory pre-fab.  And it can be pre-approved, and so there are a lot of issues.  And it can be shipped internationally, a very, very big deal.

So we think it solves a lot of issues in terms of the capital investment, the electricity infrastructure, and so I’m very gung-ho on this.  And we are trying to work and see if we can accelerate the development.

And by the way, it’s a way of the United States regaining its lead in nuclear technology.  We built the first reactor in the world – Enrico Fermi.  We were the leaders initially in nuclear reactors, but we are no longer the leaders.  It’s France and Japan and Korea.  And now China wants to be the new leader.

And so this is a way we can get back that technology lead.

MODERATOR:  Okay, well thank you, Secretary Chu and thanks for everyone joining us in person and online.  This will be the first of a series of “Energy Matters” online chats and town halls, both with Secretary Chu and other leaders here at the department.

For those of you who had questions who we were not able to get to today, we’ll be following up with some answers in the coming days.  And so please do go ahead and continue the conversation online at  Thank you.  (Applause.)

SEC. CHU:  Thank you.