U.S. must invest in technologies to avoid energy crisis

Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Nobel laureate in physics, has advocated for energy thrift. During a September visit to Washington, D.C., he spoke with senior editor Janet Raloff about how he believes the United States can tackle what he sees as a looming energy crisis.

You’ve said the United States needs to launch an energy research program that’s comparable to the Apollo mission. What did you mean?

Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Nobel laureate for physics, has advocated for energy thrift. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

That we need big investments and that our country needs to act quickly. In that respect, the programs would be similar. But the Apollo mission was essentially an engineering project with one goal: Put a man on the moon. And cost was not an issue. The energy situation is very different.

Today, carbon emissions are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. They’re there but largely ignored by most people. Industry is waking up to the importance of these. But industry is also reluctant to invest in transformational technologies that won’t pay for themselves within 10 years. This means that effective technologies have to be affordable.

What do you mean by transformational technologies?

They have to be revolutionary, the way transistors changed electronics or fertilizers changed agriculture. They must allow us to do much more with less—and in an entirely new way.

If you asked people 100 years ago whether our planet could feed 6 billion people, the answer would have been no, because we didn’t have high-yielding plants. But with fertilizers and advanced crops, today we can feed billions.

Can we provide enough energy for everyone to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle?

I believe we can. No law of physics says we can’t. Consider energy efficiency, the lowest-hanging fruit. Buildings consume about 40 percent of the total energy produced in the United States. New buildings today can run on 50 to 60 percent less energy than those constructed 50 years ago.

But we’ve been talking very seriously … about forming a consortium to make buildings become even more energy efficient—ones that could run on only 20 to 25 percent as much energy as they do today.

Who’s “we”?

We at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, at the University of California, Berkeley, and at heating, ventilating and air-conditioning companies like United Technologies. New features will have to be integrated into the design of these buildings. They may even have to generate some of their own energy with photovoltaics or other technologies.

Or take cars. There’s a hope that we can have plug-in hybrids in two to five years that would dramatically reduce a car’s need for liquid fuels. But to make these really attractive—transformative—they’ll need a different battery.

What’s the status of those batteries?

Current batteries for hybrid and electric cars last just five to six years, take a car only 40 miles on a charge—and cost $10,000. These aren’t going to sweep the market. But if you had a battery that was three times better, cost only a couple thousand dollars, could go 100 miles on a charge and used an electrolyte that wasn’t flammable, then you’d have a technology that could penetrate the market without tax credits.

Berkeley Lab has developed a battery that has about a factor of two higher energy density than the best lithium-ion battery (and a factor of three better than the one they’re thinking about putting in the GM Volt). It’s inherently safe because the electrolyte is nonflammable. And it can be made for about the same cost as current-generation batteries—maybe even less.

Still, there’s a way to go yet because it doesn’t have a high enough current at 0° Celsius. So it wouldn’t start when it’s freezing.

What do you see as the role of government?

The government has got to allow investment tax credits so that companies have an incentive to invest in long-term energy research. It will also need to help build a workforce. The way students are supported in science and engineering is through research grants to professors. Unless the government invests more in these grants, we won’t be able to train the next generation of researchers for careers in transformative research.

The federal government can also offer policy incentives. The average American consumes about 10 to 12 kilowatts of electricity, 24/7, while some European countries with comparable lifestyles, like Denmark and Holland, use only 60 percent as much. What encouraged their efficiency was the very price of their energy. So the government can give people a price signal today that will influence purchases and energy use in years to come.