by Richard T. Stuebi
As Secretary of the Department of Energy, Steven Chu is a breath of fresh air. As a recent profile in The Economist noted, “Wags used to say that the one essential qualification for being energy secretary was not to know anything about energy.” Well, that definitely doesn’t apply to Dr. Chu.
A winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for physics, and former Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Steven Chu is by far the most expert energy secretary the U.S. has had since the founding of the Department of Energy in 1977. (See the list of other predecessors.)
Of course, in Washington, it’s not always the case that knowledge and experience begets success. But any failures that Chu might experience can’t be attributed to lack of resources.
Clearly, Secretary Chu has a lot of money to play with these days: in addition to annual budget of $26 billion (which is certain to increase substantially in coming years), over $38 billion was authorized to DOE as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So far, only about $7 billion of the ARRA monies has been awarded, and a measly $243 million has been actually spent, so Chu has a lot of “dry powder” left.
Let’s hope he puts it to good use, because the public sector is a notoriously poor selector of winners and losers — among technologies and among businesses. Chu is obviously a bright guy; let’s hope he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know. (Of course, the last guy to notably discuss the concept of “unknown unknowns” — former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — was no dummy, and we all know how well his efforts panned out.)
Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.