Secretary Steven Chu, who oversaw expanded federal support
for low-carbon energy and defended it against GOP attacks,
announced Friday that he is stepping down.
in a letter to Energy Department employees, said he would
remain with the department at least until the end of
February, and perhaps beyond "so that I can leave the
Department in the hands of the new Secretary."
the country as Secretary of Energy, and working alongside
such an extraordinary team of people at the Department, has
been the greatest privilege of my life. While the job has
had many challenges, it has been an exciting time for the
Department, the country, and for me personally," he wrote.
he didn’t announce specific plans, Chu said he’s like to
return to academic life and move back to the West Coast.
I will always remain dedicated to the missions of the
Department, I informed the President of my decision a few
days after the election that Jean and I were eager to return
to California. I would like to return to an academic life of
teaching and research, but will still work to advance the
missions that we have been working on together for the last
four years,” Chu writes.
Obama thanked Chu in a statement Friday and said the
outgoing secretary “brought to the Energy Department a
unique understanding of both the urgent challenge presented
by climate change and the tremendous opportunity that clean
energy represents for our economy.”
“And during his time as Secretary, Steve helped my
Administration move America towards real energy
independence. Over the past four years, we have doubled the
use of renewable energy, dramatically reduced our dependence
on foreign oil, and put our country on a path to win the
global race for clean energy jobs,” Obama said.
The Nobel Prize-wining physicist took the Energy
Department’s (DOE) helm shortly before the agency received
$35 billion under the 2009 stimulus law.
64-year-old Chu, with White House support, backed a larger
federal role in R&D and commercialization of renewable,
energy efficiency and battery technologies.
part of the effort — grants and loans to help specific
green-energy companies take flight — brought big political
headaches for Chu and Obama when a handful of them failed or
In particular, the 2011 collapse of the solar panel
manufacturer Solyndra, which received a half-billion-dollar
federal loan in 2009, prompted GOP-led Capitol Hill hearings
and an avalanche of election-season attacks.
Chu’s departure has been widely expected and is part of a
larger turnover of Obama’s energy and environment team.
Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced in
late December that she is leaving after Obama’s mid-February
State of the Union speech, and Interior Secretary Ken
Salazar will leave by the end of March.
The long list of potential nominees to replace Chu includes
former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.); former Michigan Gov.
Jennifer Granholm (D), Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel
Poneman; and Sue Tierney, a managing principal at the
Analysis Group who was DOE’s assistant secretary for policy
under former President Clinton.
Others include former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D); Center
for American Progress founder John Podesta, who was
Clinton’s chief of staff; and Stanford University’s Dan
Reicher, who formerly headed climate and energy initiatives
for Google and served on Obama’s transition team.
Whoever replaces Chu will face a number of challenges
running the sprawling department at a time of fiscal
pressure and budget battles.
Its missions range from overseeing the nation’s nuclear
weapons stockpile to managing strategic petroleum reserves
to financing R&D into alternative energy and other
For instance, DOE is facing competing political pressures as
it weighs a slew of industry applications to export
liquefied natural gas.
Chu, for his part, arrived at DOE with scientific heft but
scant political experience as the White House sought to
jumpstart the green-energy sector and tackle climate change.
Chu is the son of Chinese immigrants who was focused heavily
on green energy as director of Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory when Obama picked him for DOE.
He worked to overhaul DOE’s R&D programs.
Chu has frequently touted the model of the former AT&T
Bell Laboratories — where his work in the mid-1980s would
yield his 1997 Nobel Prize — for incubating and developing
Under Chu, DOE has launched various “energy innovation
hubs,” or research centers, that focus on batteries and
energy storage, advanced nuclear reactors and several other
Chu also focused on two programs that were authorized before
his arrival but really got rolling under the current
One was the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy
(ARPA-E), which funds so-called high-risk, high-reward
research into breakthrough technologies. The agency was
created in 2007 legislation but did not receive funding
The other was the green technology loan-guarantee program,
which had not finalized support for any companies before
It was created in a bipartisan 2005 energy law, and modified
and funded through the 2009 stimulus, which ultimately
provided support for Solyndra and many other power
generation and manufacturing projects.
The demise of Solyndra and some other companies that
received federal loans or grants — such as Abound Solar and
battery maker A123 Systems — threw DOE on the defensive and
fueled GOP arguments that the White House green-energy
agenda has been a failure.
A House GOP probe of Solyndra, a company that Obama visited
personally in 2010, brought Chu into high-profile collisions
with lawmakers and unearthed information that’s politically
embarrassing for the White House.
A White House-commissioned outside review completed in early
2012 called for several reforms to improve management of the
But the congressional Solyndra inquiry did not substantiate
Republican allegations that federal backing for the
California company was a political payoff for a wealthy
campaign donation bundler for Obama.
Administration officials say the woes of a few companies
should not obscure the wider successes of the loan program,
which has backed more than two-dozen power-generation,
manufacturing and other projects. More broadly, they
frequently point out that U.S. renewable energy generation
has risen sharply on their watch.
However, the green-energy push that the Obama administration
launched in 2009 has had its share of stumbles.
Chu on Thursday acknowledged that the administration may not
meet its goal of having one million electric vehicles on
U.S. roads by 2015.
Throughout his tenure, Chu has warned often that the U.S.
will cede growing green-technology markets to China and
other nations absent muscular federal policies to nurture
and support those industries.
Chu also played a role that few could have predicted.
He lent scientific expertise to the fraught, months-long
effort to contain BP’s runaway Macondo well in the Gulf of
Mexico, which spewed several million barrels of oil after
blowing out in April of 2010.
Postreporter Joel Achenbach’s book
about the crisis,A
Hole At The Bottom Of The Sea, recounted the arrival
of the government’s “alpha scientist” at BP’s Houston office
in May of 2010.
Chu, who has been a professor at Stanford University and the
University of California, won unanimous Senate confirmation
in January of 2009.
He used the DOE perch to call for stronger action to fight
climate change, including efforts to impose costs on carbon
emissions that have stalled in Congress.
The outgoing secretary has been especially enthusiastic
about solar technologies that he likes to point out are
marching toward cost competitiveness with fossil fuels.
In 2011, Chu joked that addressing pressing energy and
climate-change problems led to his “downward spiral from
professor to administrator to government bureaucrat.”