The consequences of Steve Chu’s curious decisions

One of our favorite bloggers, Berkeley journalist Richard Brenneman, has a bone to pick with Secretary of Energy (and former Berkeley resident and head of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab) Steve Chu. On his blog Eats Shoots ‘n Leaves, Brenneman had this missive to share today.  — GJEP

2012 March 20 — Having its Nobel laureate head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory named Secretary of Energy by Barack Obama four years ago was a huge boost for the collective ego of folks here at UC Berkeley.

But the years since have raised some questions that should give folks here pause about some of his campus and lab milestones.

Two stories published in the last month should give even Chu’s heartiest boosters a sober second thought or two.

While he’s not the dimmest bulb in D.C., he’s one of the more expensive luminaries — at least for consumers and taxpayers.

An illuminating decision?

Consider first a story from Peter Whoriskey of the Washington Post:

The U.S. government last year announced a $10 million award, dubbed the “L Prize,” for any manufacturer that could create a “green” but affordable light bulb.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the prize would spur industry to offer the costly bulbs, known as LEDs, at prices “affordable for American families.” There was also a “Buy America” component. Portions of the bulb would have to be made in the United States.

Even when government pushes companies toward environmental innovations and Americans come up with them, the manufacture of the next generation technology can still end up overseas.

Now the winning bulb is on the market.

The price is $50.

Retailers said the bulb, made by Philips, is likely to be too pricey to have broad appeal. Similar LED bulbs are less than half the cost.

“I don’t want to say it’s exorbitant, but if a customer is only looking at the price, they could come to that conclusion,” said Brad Paulsen, merchant for the light-bulb category at Home Depot, the largest U.S. seller of light bulbs. “This is a Cadillac product, and that’s why you have a premium on it.”

Read the rest.

So the award for the affordable bulb goes to the most expensive one. Sure, the device puts out a tad more light than versions that cost half as much. But really. Affordable?

And none of the LED bulbs can as yet match the affordability of another device the lab had a hand in creating, the CFL, the compact fluorescent light. Though that much-used replacement for the incandescent bulb contains enough toxic mercury that Chu’s old lab used to issued complex instructions for how to safely handle the cleanup if one of them broke.

It’s not that we wouldn’t welcome a truly affordable LED bulb; it’s just that Chu’s department exhibited a certain cluelessness in its choice of winners.

And then there’s Solyndra

The collapse of the company widely promoted as part of Chu’s vision for a clean, green American energy future? Not my fault, says he.

From Daniel J. Goldstein of California Watch:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu rebutted Republican allegations that he pushed San Francisco-based Prologis to sign a deal with now-bankrupt Solyndra, saying instead that he was “nervous” about the venture because he knew then the solar panel deal was likely to fail.

“We weren’t comfortable with Solyndra being the supplier,” Chu told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at an Energy Department budget hearing in Washington, saying Solyndra’s shaky finances in summer 2011 made it unlikely that it could meet the deadlines.

Prologis, a company that leases industrial and warehouse buildings, had sought the Energy Department’s backing for Project Amp, a $1.4 billion electricity-generating plan that would put solar panels on more than 750 of its warehouse roofs. Prologis initially had agreed to have Fremont-based Solyndra supply the panels, but. . .Chu told members of Congress he had second thoughts about using Solyndra, contrary to Republican assertions that he wanted a last-minute deal to save the doomed solar panel firm.

>snip<

Project Amp did have the backing of Chu, who wanted to use vast arrays of solar panels atop low-slung industrial buildings to supply power not just to the facility itself, but also to the nation’s electricity grid. Nearly 1,000 construction jobs were expected to be created from the project, which would have installed more photovoltaic capacity in one project than all of those completed in the U.S. in 2010.

Read the rest.

Okay, so you “weren’t comfortable” with the company.

Why not tell the rest of us?

And back to Berkeley

Chu was one of the great promoters of the $500 million agreement with BP to fund the corporate Helios program on the Cal campus, a program presented with a careful disinformation campaign by the guy ultimately picked to run it.

Chris Somerville, a corporate/academic hybrid who made a pile off genetically modified soybeans, claimed the project aimed at creating an agrofuel complex that would meet the U.S. fuel needs from crops grown on “marginal” farmland east of the Mississippi.

Steve Koonin, the Cal tech physicist brought in by BP to run its own secret research half of the program, was much more honest, declaring that his new corporate bosses were interested in the “green parts” of the globe to farm crops for coversion to fuel by genetically engineered microbes and other dazzling technologies TBD [to be developed].

Koonin, later brought in as Chu’s number two for science at the DOE, is a guy who knows all about secrets, since he’s a long-time member of the JASONS, a group of self-appointed scientists with top security clearances who give advice to the Pentagon and other secret outfits.

Indeed, Koonin was part of the team called in to suggest a major revamp of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Science and Technology back in the Clinton era, a story recounted in Jeffrey T. Richelson’s 2002 volume The Wizards of Langley: Inside The CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology.

At the time of the deal, dissident UC Berkeley faculty warned that the project, if successful, would lead to massive Third World corporate lands as lands were sought to run industrial-scale plantations to grow the crops needed to make the fuel required to keep the industrialized North’s internal combustion engines, generators, and jets in motion.

Well, it looks like the critics were right.

Consider this from a report by Stefano Valentino of the Rome-based Italian dailyLa Repubblica, translated by Presseurop [Italian original here]:

Imagine a surface the size of Switzerland – 4 million hectares – totally covered in plantations aimed at supplying fuel to vehicles and electricity plants. That’s the total land currently exploited in Africa by Western countries in order to supply biofuels. The British are in the lead with a record 1.6 million hectares of cultivated land, followed by the Italians, the Germans, the French and the Americans.

>snip<

According to a report by the International Land Coalition, 66% of the land acquired in Africa is aimed at biofuels production with only 15% set aside for food production. The study also says that all told, biofuels occupy 19 million hectares in Africa. At the global level, replacing food crops with biofuels plantations contributed to the dramatic rise in food prices during the 2008 famine. This caused humanitarian organisations to lash out against biofuels.

Read the rest.

Looks like Chu, an agrofuel enthusiast, may be suffering from a certain fiscal and environmental/social myopia. Or, at the very least, is willing to keep his reservations quiet in order to go with the flow. . .of dollars.

Eisenhower’s warning redux

If this is a cautionary tale, then it’s one foreseen long ago, by Dwight David Eisenhower, in his farewell address from the Oval Office:

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

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