Steven Chu: 'Swing for the Fences'

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

America's green czar is counting on big breakthroughs.

On the campaign trail--before the global economic crisis--Barack Obama said the top three things he wanted to accomplish as president were withdrawing troops from Iraq, reforming health care, and putting in place a new energy policy. A health-care bill has passed, and U.S. combat troops are on their way out of Iraq later this summer. NEWSWEEK's Fareed Zakaria recently took up the third priority with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who has proven that high intelligence is not a barrier to effectiveness in government. Excerpts:

How would you describe Obama's energy policy in a few sentences?

We look at all the factors and we say, how can we get to the lowest possible level of carbon as quickly as possible and not only at the lowest cost but with the greatest possible economic opportunity for the U.S.?

When people look at the fiscal stimulus, some say if only they'd taken this opportunity to make major investments in energy, science, and infrastructure. Do you believe you are making those investments?

I would say that we are making those investments, though in some areas the effort is just to get something started. The Department of Energy is responsible for the entire energy innovation chain--from basic science research to applied research, to even beginning to help deploy and scale [new technologies]. You fund for a very short period of time--two years, three years -maximum--in hopes of opening up something big. So we are saying, swing for the fences. Now if you swing for the fences, you may strike out more. But we want a few home runs.

Is the smart grid the interstate-highway system of the 21st century?

The analogy is very apt. It will take several decades to be able to get this to [work], and the cost will be very large. Before I took this job I [participated in] a National Academies study called America's Energy Future. The total cost, public and private, that I heard was half a trillion dollars or more.

We still overwhelmingly use fossil fuels--renewables, all told, probably add up to 5 percent. What's a realistic 10-year goal?

We're at about 4 percent now. President Obama made a target to double that by 2012, and we are on target. I expect that to continue. In 10 years' time we hope to have carbon-capture-and-sequestration technologies starting to be deployed. …