Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Global Warming

The Department of Energy is at the center of U.S. efforts to end our dependence on foreign oil, roll back climate change and create new jobs. Fareed Zakaria sat down last week with the department's new head, Nobel physicist Steven Chu, at NEWSWEEK's Energy Independence 2020 Forum Luncheon to talk about smart grids, solar panels and more. Excerpts:

Zakaria: Skeptics say there's still conflicting evidence on global warming.
Chu: I urge everyone to do this: Google the 2007 IPCC report. The 100-year trend is unmistakable. The first thing to emphasize is don't get excited about one or two years. It's just like you should not get excited that one very bad hurricane is evidence there's global warming.

Can we really prevent global warming? Or should we be thinking more about adaptation? Building coastal fortifications may be cheaper than halting the release of CO2.
Right now, the climate scientists feel that if all humans shut off carbon emissions today, it will still glide up by about 1 degree centigrade. In the business-as-usual scenarios, Nicholas Stern says there's a 50 percent chance we may go to 5 degrees centigrade. We know what the Earth was like 5 or 6 degrees centigrade colder. That was called the Ice Ages. Imagine a world 5 degrees warmer. The desert lines would be dramatically changed. The West is projected to be in drought conditions. And certain tipping points might be triggered. We can adapt to 1 or 2 degrees. More than that, there is no adaptation strategy.

Aren't we in pretty bad trouble no matter what we do? We're not going to be able to stop burning fossil fuels for quite a while.
We're in the great ship Titanic, the Earth is, and it's going to take a half century to really turn the ship. But that doesn't mean we can't start doing it today, and we must. It's possible that the United States can greatly reduce its use of energy in our buildings, which consume 40 percent of our energy, and our personal vehicles.

You're basically talking about insulating buildings and using more fuel-efficient cars?
Well, not only insulating buildings—we haven't taken full advantage of the technologies that exist today. They haven't been integrated into making smarter buildings that can be 60, 80 percent more energy-efficient than existing buildings.

But in addition to that, if you were going to ask me, do we have what is needed today to reduce our carbon emissions by 80, 90 percent and still enjoy the standard of living we enjoy, the answer is no. We need better technologies. But I'm pretty confident that we can figure this out. Necessity is the mother of a lot of inventions.

Most electricity is generated from coal. How do we get off coal?
We can have renewables. We have nuclear power. During the nighttime when there's less demand for electricity, we'll be plugging our cars into these and charging them up so that that nuclear power can be used in a much better way. Storage technology will be incredibly useful and needed as transient renewables become a larger portion of our energy budget.

But they're all more expensive than coal?
That is true. Wind is so far the most competitive. The cost of electricity generation by wind has gone down by almost a factor of 10 in the last two decades. It will continue to go down. What you should talk about is what is the real cost of the energy?

There's wind, solar, geothermal. Which technology will get us out of the fossil-fuel trap?
Ultimately, it's going to be some form of solar energy. But as to which technology 20 years and 30 years from now will be the dominant one, I don't know. On that time scale, we have to work on carbon capture and storage. Nuclear energy I think has to be part of the portfolio in this century. And then going back to the other thing: efficiency. We now make refrigerators that are four times more energy-efficient than the refrigerators of 1975—for half the inflation-adjusted cost. The energy we save with these refrigerators is more than all of the wind and solar photovoltaic energy we produce in the United States today. Just refrigerators.

Even if the private sector can produce all this alternative energy, you need to get it to the people who need it. How do we rebuild the grid and make it smarter?
What we have today is like what we had in the highway system in 1950. States were responsible for the roads. If you wanted to drive across the country, you would have to wind your way through essentially local roads. And so what President Eisenhower said is that for the sake of national security, we need a national highway system. And today we have one of the best highway systems in the world. [Today] we have local power companies that are regional. No one is really thinking about transmitting energy over 1,000 miles, because that goes out of their domain. So that's why you hear a lot of talk about the need for a much smarter grid system. Ideally, I would think you'd want the private sector to do that, and you adjust the conditions to encourage the private sector to think about a national system.

Do you feel like the political struggle is your biggest challenge?
I don't actually think in those terms. Our dependency on foreign oil, our national security, our economic prosperity, and the climate-change issues—these aren't ultimately political questions. This is a way into the 21st century, a way to regain our technological leadership, regain our high- quality manufacturing leadership that we have lost, all of these things, as well as helping save the world.