Meeting the Energy and Climate Challenge by Dr. Steven Chu

Meeting the Energy and Climate Challenge by Dr. Steven Chu

Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy and co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics (1997) delivered this speech “Meeting the Energy and Climate Challenge” at Stanford University on March 7, 2010, where he was formerly a professor.

Dr. Chu called on the students and faculty to take part in a new Industrial Revolution. At the epicenter of Silicon Valley, Stanford has been at the heart of the Information Technology Revolution – a catalyst for innovators such as Intel, Cisco, and Google. “America has the opportunity to lead the world in a new industrial revolution,” he was quoted in the Stanford Report.

Humans are causing Global Warming

The Novel Laureate discussed the irrefutable case for anthropogenic climate change. “There is a mountain of climate data going back to 1860.” Climate deniers say that humans are not causing global warming; rather it is a variance of solar energy including sun spots. Dr. Chu presented a chart showing the long-term continued rise in the global surface temperature while the solar energy reaching the atmosphere followed a predictable 11-year cycle of 1366 and 1367 watts per square meter (W/m²).

CO2 concentration has increased 40% since the start of the first industrial revolution, including all GHG such as methane the equivalent increase has been 50%. Irrevocable effects are under way. The Earth must warm until a new equilibrium is reached in about 150 years due to time lags such as deeper ocean warming. Added temperature increase will result from the long life of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, and from increased emissions.

The effects of warming can be measured. Satellites can now measure with good precision the mass of the earth. Dr. Chu observed that the ice mass is decreasing quadratically in the Greenland and decreasing in the Antarctic.

He also pointed to potential tipping points. There are huge uncertainties with the risk of 3.5 to 6 degree temperature increases.

United States Innovation in Energy Efficiency, Renewables, and Transportation

“The U.S. innovation machine is the greatest in the world,” said Dr. Chu. “When given the right incentives, [it] will respond.” Energy efficiency and renewables present major opportunities.

The U.S. market share of photovoltaics peaked in 1996 at over 40 percent of global production; it is now less than 10%. Asia has the lead in batteries. China is spending $9 billion a month on clean energy. For example, the State Grid is investing $44 billion by 2012 and $88B by 2020 in UHV transmission lines with transmission losses over 2,000 kilometers that are less than 5%. China is committed to produce 100GW of wind power by 2020.

The United States Recovery Act is making an $80 billion down payment on a clean energy economy to regain our global competitiveness and create U.S. jobs. Dr. Chu described how the United States could be the world’s innovative leader. The most immediate opportunity is in energy efficiency.

Since 1975, the electricity saved from energy efficient refrigerators with smaller compressors exceeds the total energy produced from wind and solar. Consumers respond to Energy Star ratings. We are expanding our energy efficiency standards to include buildings. In answering a question, Dr. Chu noted that energy efficiency can be extended beyond buildings to city blocks and cities themselves. The Energy Secretary got laughs from the students when he demonstrated how to adjust the sleep mode settings on their PCs and Macs.

Optimistic about Research Breakthroughs

There is good reason for optimism for renewable energy. The cost factor of wind power has decreased by a power of ten. Learning curves for photovoltaics has also declined by over a factor of ten. On a large roof, the installed solar cost is still around $4 per watt. If you get to $1.50 per watt installed, solar takes off without subsidy.

Because renewables are variable they benefit from local and grid storage, and from a smart grid. Pumped water storage is often 75% efficient; compressed air has the potential to be 60 percent efficient. The DOE has funded research for a variety of grid and vehicle battery chemistries.

Currently the United States is dependent on oil. Most proven reserves for oil majors such as Exxon, BP, Shell, are now off-shore. It will cost more to extract from tar sands and with more CO2 emissions.

Transportation is the hardest area to improve, mused Dr. Chu. Liquid petroleum fuels have excellent energy density. A Boeing 777 departs with 45% of its weight in jet fuel which has an energy density of 43 Mj/kg and 32 Mj/liter; a lithium battery, only .54 Mj/kg and 0.9 Mj/liter, yet batteries can compete in cars because of the efficiency of electric drive systems and learning curve improvements. We need an automotive battery pack for less than $10,000 with 5,000 deep discharges and 5X higher storage capacity, stated Dr. Chu.

We need breakthroughs. Much can from great research labs, such as Dr. Chu’s former Bell Labs. Scientific research for new breakthroughs will be encouraged with multiple programs:

  • Energy Frontier Research Centers = university sponsored scientific research for innovative energy solutions.
  • Energy Innovation Hubs = multi-disciplinary, highly collaborative teams working under one roof.
  • Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) = short term, high risk – high reward research projects

Energy Secretary Chu concluded with the first view of Earth from the Apollo 8 orbit of the lunar surface and with these two quotations:

“We came all this way to explore the moon and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth. – U.S. Astronaut Bill Anders (Dec 24, 1968)

“…We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” – Dr. Martin Luther King (1967)

Video of Dr. Chu’s Speech at Stanford