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U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu gave a talk about clean energy Wednesday in Kresge Auditorium.
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U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Laureate in Physics Steven Chu visited MIT to map out his strategies to restore U.S. competitiveness in clean energy in a talk at Kresge Auditorium this Wednesday. This is his first visit to the Institute since his Compton lecture in 2009. The event was sponsored by the student-run MIT Energy Club.

In his address — “Winning the Clean Energy Race” — Chu made extensive use of historical examples of “transformative technologies,” ranging from the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process (synthesis of ammonia) to the development of vacuum tubes and transistors, as analogies to what he believed were the right policies for growth in the U.S. economy.

Using the talk as an opportunity to reach out to the MIT community, Chu also announced the Better Buildings Challenge. Part of President Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative, the Challenge calls on company CEOs, university presidents, and state and local leaders to build more energy-efficient and money-saving buildings, and recognizes them for their efforts. “Part of the Challenge is a ‘case competition’ to encourage energy club students to come up with solutions to these energy efficiency barriers,” said Chu.

According the Department of Energy’s website, the Better Building Case Competition allows college students to work on real scenarios submitted by both public- and private-sector DOE partners through a team formed by their university’s energy club. The teams will be invited to present at a workshop organized by the DOE, which will “provide students with valuable networking time with DOE leadership and potential future employers, as well as fellow student colleagues.” The winners will be recognized “with superlative awards,” and their proposals will be made available on the DOE website.

During the talk, Chu stressed that “federal support is critical to technology leadership.” He gave the example of the advent of airplanes, which started with Samuel Langley and the Wright brothers. Even though Langley, funded by the government, designed a failed prototype while the Wright brothers succeeded without any government support, Chu said that it was ultimately the efforts of federal government that lead to the advancement of the U.S. aviation industry. Chu cited the U.S. military continuing bulk purchase of aircraft and the Kelly Air Mail Act — which allowed private companies to carry U.S mail — as the reason that U.S. was able to restore leadership in airplane production after losing to Europe for much of the early 20th century.

When it came to the U.S. clean energy industry, Chu drew parallel between the rise of the automobile industry and the solar industry. He said the Chinese company Suntech, the current largest producer of solar modules in the world, is “Henry Fording” the U.S.; Henry Ford dominated auto manufacturing even though Daimler and Benz in Germany invented automobiles. Similarly, even though solar technology was invented in the U.S., Suntech imports its silicon materials from the U.S. and now produces most of the highest-quality photovoltaics in the world in China. “It was high-tech manufacturing, quality production that dominated the market,” said Chu.

Chu recently came under fire for his support for a guaranteed $528 million in federal loans to the solar power company Solyndra, which is now bankrupt. He had defended his decision earlier this month by saying that the collapse in solar panel prices, which was partly responsible for Solyndra’s default, was unexpected by most analysts when his department went forward with the loans.

Chu said horse excrement may be responsible for spurring innovation in the U.S. Automobile technology was able to rapidly transform the U.S. economy, he said, despite requiring substantial infrastructure improvements — a change motivated in part due to the environmental pollution of horse manure and horse urine from horse-powered vehicles. “In New York and Brooklyn in 1880, there were 160,000 horses producing three to four million pounds of horse manure a day,” Chu said. Today, environmental concerns like global climate change can be a driving force for clean energy development in the U.S., he added.

Professor Ernest J. Moniz moderated a Q&A session following the talk, in which the Energy Secretary answered four questions.

In response to a question submitted by John M. Hagerty G on the future of nuclear energy in the U.S., Chu said he believed that nuclear has a place in electricity generation in the U.S., but he would like to see it continue at the level of 20–25 percent of the total domestic energy production. “Going into the next century, I was actually hoping we can just transition away from it, to be 80 percent renewable as well as having energy storage in the transmission system,” said Chu.

Hagerty later said in an email to The Tech that Chu seemed reluctant about nuclear energy, “especially with Moniz pushing him on the possibilities for small modular nuclear reactors, which Chu seemed to be aware of the potential upsides for those reactors but not willing to endorse.”

Caleb J. Waugh G, co-president of the MIT Energy Club, also submitted a question to Chu asking his opinion on the rise of the shale gas industry.

“We think we’ll keep the price of gas moderated for at least 10 or 20 years,” he responded. While recognizing that gas is a good, cleaner alternative to coal, Chu still hopes the industry will eventually decline. Chu acknowledged that the competition from gas is an issue to the nuclear and renewable energy industry, but believed that the price of gas won’t stay cheap indefinitely, while the costs of renewable energy are still going down.

“50 years from today, I believe solar will be very inexpensive,” he said.