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Chu calls for innovation

U.S. Secretary of Energy says tech competition can help address climate change

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported that Chu also spoke at a panel later on Monday. In fact, other energy leaders spoke at the panel, which was hosted by Energy Crossroads after the GAIA event.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu spoke Monday about the need for increased competition in technological innovation and energy efficiency in the fight against global warming.

Some 1,700 students and faculty members filled Memorial Auditorium to hear Chu’s lecture, entitled “Meeting the Energy and Climate Challenge.” The event was hosted by the ASSU’s Green Alliance for Innovative Action (GAIA).

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate and former Stanford physics professor, said Monday that humans' impact on climate is "more than a smoking gun." (MASARU OKA/Staff Photographer)

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist and former Stanford professor began his talk by calling for a “new industrial revolution to give us the energy we need…but in a much cleaner form.”

He said that the country needs a comprehensive energy bill and a price on carbon so that businesses will have an incentive to go green, rather than allowing them to choose “business as usual,” which is cheaper in the short run.

Chu also explained the science behind human-induced climate change, showing how temperatures are rising and proportions of carbon-14 (C14) — an organic form of carbon found in plants and animals — are decreasing more quickly than would happen naturally.

“It’s more than a smoking gun,” Chu said. “The question is not if the earth will warm up, but how much it will warm up.”

Chu’s analysis of global climate and evident expertise received positive reactions from several students.

“I feel some people probably didn’t have the scientific background to fully understand his examples,” said John Melas-Kyriazi ’11. “For those of us who did, it was very compelling and interesting, so I’m glad he did.”

Others, like Michael Cruz ’12, a member of the ASSU’s sustainability subcommittee, wished that Chu had used his time to talk about energy policy and “how you change individuals’ mindsets — the American mindset — rather than so much about the nitty-gritty.”

Chu warned that the United States might lose its leading position in the world in the absence of further technological advances. Decades ago, Americans were at the forefront of automobile technology, energy transmission and nuclear power. Now, countries in Europe and Asia are investing more money in those fields.

“If we hold off the inevitable for another five years or 10 years, we’ll lose because other countries are ahead,” Chu said. “We will play catch-up and the United States is at risk. Energy touches everything in the United States.”

According to the Nobel laureate, China spends $9 billion a month on clean energy, investing heavily in wind energy. Chu recalled an occasion in which he asked the head of their state grid about how he got people to pay for the system.

“Well, of course, nobody likes money taken out of their wallets, but we tell them how important it is,” the unnamed official responded to Chu.

“Different system,” Chu quipped to the laughing audience.

But Chu went on to acknowledge the United States’ longstanding role as an “innovation machine,” adding that the Obama administration’s new policies provide a “reason to hope.”

“Scientists have come to the service of our country in times of national need,” he said.

Contributing to this effort, Chu said the Department of Energy hopes to foster scientific communities that encourage collaborative, multidisciplinary innovations.

The Department of Energy also has established an agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to fund “high-risk, high-reward” projects. Stanford received $4.9 million in October to research incentives for energy-efficient behavior in homes and small businesses.

On an individual basis, Chu also said that Americans need to learn to use energy more wisely. For example, he stated that more energy efficient fridges have saved an amount of electricity greater “than all the renewable wind and solar energy we make today.”

“That’s how important energy efficiency is,” he added.

Chu also offered suggestions to students on how to be more energy efficient, such as becoming more informed, turning off lights, shutting off water and putting a computer to sleep.

Some students found these latter suggestions somewhat lacking in substance.

“The only thing that rang a little sour for me was the answer to what young people can do,” said Eli Pollak ’12. “I would never downplay the importance of individual action, but young people, especially as talented a group of young people as you had in the room today, have an essential role in driving forward the technological advances for this issue.”

At a panel later on Monday also hosted by GAIA , along with Henry Kelly, the Department of Energy principal deputy assistant secretary; Lynn Orr, the director of the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy; Camron Gorguinpou, the executive director of Scientists & Engineers for America and moderator Teryn Norris, the director of Americans for Energy Leadership, who is also a Daily columnist.

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