Nick Rosen |

The Taipei Times published the first interview with Nobel-prize winner Steven Chu since his appointment as President-elect Obama’s energy czar. In it, Chu forecasts “a gradual crash…predicted to accelerate.”  He says “we have to immediately start decreasing the amount of energy we use.” And he lays into powerful tech business United Technologies, as a case study of profligate incompetence.

That transcript  is followed by an old interview from Reuters wire which is very revealing of Chu’s point of view and his rational embrace of eco-principles that will be reflected from day one in his new post. “
“If I were emperor of the world,” he told Reuters last year, “I would put the pedal to the floor on energy efficiency and conservation for the next decade.”

Here are the transcripts, but first, Steven, if you are reading this, we’d love to interview you — anywhere, any time.

Taipei Times 15 December 2008

Q: You used the Titanic’ crashing into an iceberg as a metaphor for the problem of climate change. Can you give an estimate as to when the crash would happen?

Steven Chu: It’s a gradual crash. We have already seen a substantial change in climate, sea level rising, the melting of glaciers all over the world The heat is bleaching coral at a faster rate, the number of forest fires has increased, so you can go down the list of things that are related to increases in heat and melting of polar caps The Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas actually feed water to many of the major river basins around the world, like the Ganji River, the Yellow River [Polar caps are] melting at a rate more than 1m in thickness a year now, but because it stretches over millions and millions of square miles [kilometers], it means a lot of water. I’ve heard stories where in India the Ganji water level has risen, it always goes up and down but the average level has risen to the point where it displaces people who live around the water, and they’ve become refugees.

This is predicted to accelerate. Pine forests in the US and Canada are dying. When the forests die we’re very exposed to floods because the mountainsides no longer have trees, and if it rains then there’s a lot of erosion.

In California and many places around the world, the moisture’s kept in the mountains by trees and snow and if you don’t have snow or trees, what happens during the wet season is you have floods, and instead of a continuous supply of water you would get floods and droughts. We’ve begun to see these effects in the last decade, and the predictions are it’s going to get much, much worse.

TT: So what are our options?

Chu: We want it to be bad, but not awful. In order to keep it at just “bad,” we have to immediately start decreasing the amount of energy we use. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody doesn’t heat their homes or turn on air conditioning.

For example, the lighting in this building doesn’t really have to be as bright as it is.

TT: How can we use energy more efficiently?

Chu: It turns out that most people don’t understand how to build buildings. The reason I say that is because there is a major US company called United Technologies, they make air conditioning, building control systems, elevators, helicopters, jet engines They’re a very high-tech company.

In one of their buildings – a high-rise building maybe 50 stories high – the architect changed the window and did things in such a way that it became impossible to cool the upper 15 stories of the building below 85 degrees [Fahrenheit, 29.4ºC]. So they had to do a lot of re-engineering, but the design architects and the structural engineers weren’t really talking to one another and didn’t fully understand the airflow patterns. Usually people keep the airflow pattern very simple, there’s an inlet and an outlet and you just force the airflow to happen, but forcing it could also be fighting against natural convection and the natural design of the building, making it much more energy-intensive.

TT: Are energy-efficient buildings more expensive to build than regular ones?

Chu: Energy-efficient buildings will pay for themselves. For example, if you have a building with a flat roof, and you make the roof white, such as using white pebbles instead of dark ones, depending on the shape of the building, you can be reducing 10 [percent] to 20 percent of the air conditioning load.

There’s a recently published paper from people in our laboratory that says, if you take only the city buildings that have flat-topped roofs and make them light-colored, and make the roads light-colored by using cement, the amount of carbon dioxide decreased is equivalent to taking all the cars in the world [carbon emission] and turning them off for 10 years.

Rooftops don’t cost much money, and it saves on air conditioning, as well as reflects the light back from where it came from. These are things which we should be doing today. It’s actually pure ignorance.

The architects fought against this for a while, because they felt that nobody should tell them what color their roofs should be, even though you can’t see the roof, by the way. Having a white roof will not dramatically alter your lifestyle. If you have white roofs and lighter colored pavement, you will notice the cities becoming cooler. Cities are much hotter than in the countryside during the summer, because they’re absorbing all this energy and also generating energy from air conditioning. So we should be doing this a few years from now.


Reuters News  9th May 2007

BERKELEY, Calif.- California’s tallest mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, may lose nearly all its snowpack by the end of the century, threatening a water crisis in the nation’s most populous state, a leading scientist and Nobel laureate said.

California could lose 30 percent to 70 percent of the snowpack to the ills of greenhouse gases and global warming, Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the 1997 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, told Reuters.

A “bad scenario” of atmospheric carbon could mean the loss of 70 percent to 93 percent, Chu said in an interview, citing published climate models.

California depends on the snowpack to generate hydroelectricity, help irrigate the biggest agricultural economy in the United States, fill reservoirs, and support wildlife and recreation on the state’s rivers.

“I think that’s a much more serious problem than the gradually rising sea level, unless Greenland just completely melts,” Chu said. “This is a huge water supply concern for California and the Southwest.”

Water levels in the snowpack now are at 29 percent of normal, the lowest in 20 years, and water districts are pleading for conservation and more storage to counter future dry years.

Climate change may lead to more severe drought and higher flood peaks that could mean the loss of one-fourth of the snowpack by 2050, according to California’s Department of Water Resources.

Water officials are also worried by dry conditions in the Colorado River Basin. The river is a big source of water for Southern California but has had below-average precipitation for seven of the past eight years.

Chu and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab at the University of California are researching a range of new energy programs to counter the effects of global warming and climate change.

In the short term, ridding the world of wasteful energy habits could mean big gains in trimming carbon levels.


“If I were emperor of the world, I would put the pedal to the floor on energy efficiency and conservation for the next decade,” Chu said.

Tackling energy waste in residential and commercial buildings is a high priority for Chu. He said new designs and technologies in that area could go a long way toward improving heating, ventilation and lighting systems and reducing energy consumption.

“Get rid of the wasteful habits and inefficiency and that by far and away will show the biggest gains in the short term,” he said.

Chu lists examples of “hybrid thinking” to deliver more energy efficiencies such as cogeneration plants that capture waste heat while producing electricity, but says the dominance of coal-fired electricity is a big obstacle to progress.

Coal accounts for half of electricity generation in the United States and despite the push to develop alternative, sustainable energies, it is likely to remain the “default” fuel for the next 50 years, he said.

“I hope not but we need something for 50 years to transition off of fossil fuel. Fusion won’t be there for 50 years, it may not ever be there,” Chu said.

Chu has been overseeing new energy programs at the Berkeley Lab under a program with London-based BP Plc, the third largest Western oil company, which has committed $500 million over 10 years to support a bioscience research institute to develop new biofuels for transportation.

Here is a link to a video of Steven Chu talking about growing up in a family of brilliant children and becoming a Nobel-grade scientist at Berkeley, Bell Labs and Stanford:

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the web site

Leave a Reply