U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu will resign from his position, with plans to return to teaching and research in California, Chu told U.S. Department of Energy employees in a letter Friday.
"I came with dreams, and am leaving with a set of accomplishments that we should all be proud of," said Chu, noting that his time as energy secretary had been "incredibly demanding but enormously rewarding".
Chu, who won the Noble Prize in Physics in 1997, has been an advocate for more research into renewable energy and nuclear power and away from fossil fuels. Chu was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the time of his appointment as energy secretary.
Chu's list of accomplishments did not include mention of Solyndra, the Fremont, California-based manufacturer of solar cells and a start-up company that received DOE funding. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2011. Instead, Chu noted the growing private sector investment seen in the last two years in renewable energy, including investments by Warren Buffet, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Google.
"Through the Recovery Act, the Department of Energy made grants and loans to more than 1,300 companies," Chu commented. "While critics try hard to discredit the program, the truth is that only one percent of the companies we funded went bankrupt. That one percent has gotten more attention than the 99 percent that have not."
The test for America's policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for any successes, Chu added.
"America's entrepreneurs and innovators who are leaders in global clean energy race understand that not every risk can – or should – be avoided. Michelangelo said, 'The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.'"
Chu's list of accomplishments in the letter include bringing from the drawing board to reality the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which was designed to support high-risk, high-reward technology development, and to "swing for game-changing home runs" that can fundamentally transform energy technologies.
The program has earned the respect of industry and academia for its outstanding funding choices, and active, thoughtful program management. In the programs first few years, 11 of the companies funded with $40 million have attracted over $200 million in combined private investment.
"While it is too early to tell if we have home runs like ARPA-net, there are a number of investments that have certainly rounded second base," Chu commented.
ARPA-E's initial $400 million budget was part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. ARPA-E has requested $350 million from U.S. Congress for Fiscal Year 2013 and is awaiting final appropriation.
The ARPA-E approach is being used in other areas of the DOE, including SunShot, the DOE's revitalized solar photovoltaic program. During his term as secretary, Chu also sought to encourage development of more economical utility scale solar energy, as well as advancing research into batteries for plug-in electric hybrid vehicles and development of batteries for plug-in EVs that would revolutionize the U.S. electrical distribution system and renewable energy use.
Chu also pointed to tangible signs of success during his term, including the doubling of wind and solar energy, a $36 billion investment through the Recovery Act to create clean energy jobs, and the launch of President Obama's Better Buildings Challenge, which helped one million low income homeowners weatherize their homes.
Under Chu's oversight, DOE also administered a program that generated a portfolio of loans and loan guarantees to 33 clean energy and advanced automotive manufacturing projects that Chu said would support 60,000 jobs and create $55 billion in economic investment.
The portfolio includes the construction, retooling and reopening of over a dozen auto manufacturing plants, the first national scale rooftop solar project, the first nuclear power plants in three decades, and wind arms, solar photovoltaic and concentrating solar power plants that will be among the largest worldwide, Chu commented.
Finally, Chu emphasized the importance of DOE's missions to U.S. economic prosperity, dependency on foreign and climate change. He noted that the U.S. spent approximately $430 billion on foreign oil imports in 2012, and spent many billions more on keeping oil shipping lanes open.
He also noted that overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has had "a significant and likely dominant role in climate change."
Chu acknowledged that the U.S.' ability to find and extract fossil fuels continues to improve, and economically recoverable reservoirs worldwide are likely to keep pace with rising demand for decades, and said the boom in U.S. shale gas production as made possible by DOE research from 1978 to 1991. But he added that the same opportunity lies before the U.S. with energy efficiency and clean energy.
"The cost of renewable energy is rapidly becoming competitive with other sources of energy, and the Department has played a significant role in accelerating the transition to affordable, accessible and sustainable energy," Chu concluded.
Chu said he would stay on as Secretary past the ARPA-E Summit at the end of this month and perhaps longer to allow DOE to name a new secretary.