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Today U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu announced his decision to step down. Under his leadership, the U.S. Department of Energy has changed the way it does energy research and development. He leaves behind new research organizations that are intently focused on solving specific energy problems, particularly the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy as well as several Innovation Hubs. The latter were modeled closely on Chu’s experience working at the legendary Bell Labs, where researchers solving basic problems rubbed shoulders with engineers who knew how to build things. At one Innovation Hub, for example, researchers who are inventing new materials that can absorb sunlight or split water are working together with engineers who are building prototypes that could use those materials to generate fuel from sunlight (see “Artificial Photosynthesis Effort Takes Root”).

Chu also brought an intense focus on addressing climate change through technical innovation, speaking clearly and optimistically about the potential for breakthroughs to change what’s possible. His focus on energy research changed perceptions of an agency whose budget is overwhelmingly devoted to nuclear energy and weapons. Whether that focus continues, and the extent to which the programs he started bear fruit, will depend heavily on who Obama chooses to replace him. (See Chu’s letter announcing his resignation, which lists what he sees as his major accomplishments.)

It will be interesting to see what Chu gets up to now—he’s been collecting research project ideas throughout his time as Energy Secretary. On a visit to MIT shortly after he became secretary, he enjoyed a private briefing from some of the institute’s energy researchers. Not content to listen, he frequently interrupted the presentations with questions, and at one point he and one of the researchers brainstormed a possible new research project as Chu imagined ways the researcher’s work could be taken further. President Obama credits him with figuring how to stop the Gulf oil spill. Indeed, last year, amidst all of his many duties, he managed to write a scholarly paper about energy efficiency.

At heart, Chu is a researcher who’s animated by solving problems. That spirit attracted many ambitious and capable innovators to government service, and it might be the most difficult quality for Obama to replace.

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Tagged: Energy, climate change, clean energy, R&D, renewable energy, Steven Chu

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