U.S. energy secretary visits CMU

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visited Tepper and spoke about the business of energy in a little-publicized event. (credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Co-Publisher ) U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visited Tepper and spoke about the business of energy in a little-publicized event. (credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Co-Publisher )

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu spoke at the Tepper School of Business on Thursday in a largely unpublicized visit to campus. Chu spoke to an audience of fewer than 60 students and faculty members with a short set of prepared remarks, followed by an extended question and answer session.

Chu opened by telling the story of how he became involved in energy research. He left his faculty position at Stanford University to lead research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory after he became “very concerned about climate change.”

He spoke about the early days of his research there, when Chu and his colleagues had not yet secured grant funding for alternative-energy research. During those days, they held informal meetings and seminars without the promise of funding, as they taught themselves to tackle what Chu called “the energy problem.”

After Chu’s prepared remarks, the topics of audience questions ranged from the Fukushima nuclear plant to Solyndra’s bankruptcy, and Chu addressed each question at length. Michael Lawrence, a first-year master’s of business administration student, asked what the government had learned from Solyndra, the now-bankrupt company that produced thin-film solar cells and was backed by the Department of Energy. Chu said, “Whenever there is new emerging businesses, not all of them succeed.”

Regarding the Fukushima meltdown, Chu has already publicly stated that the United States must continue to support investment and licensing for nuclear power plants, a message he echoed in his talk.

When asked about the future of smart grid technologies, Chu launched into a detailed explanation of how current power systems waste electricity, how to level loads, and even how auto-defrost works in a modern refrigerator.

He said that he sees improvements in power distribution and electrical conversion as upgrades that will benefit everyone who pays an electricity bill, as well as waste less energy. But Chu said that few changes have been made to our power distribution system. “Our electrical system is something that would be recognizable by Edison and Westinghouse and Tesla,” Chu said.

The talk, while often highly technical in nature, was geared toward the many MBA students present. Chu presented alternative energy technologies and innovation as business opportunities. “It is okay to make money and save the world,” Chu said. “There, I said it.”

He not only discussed investment and innovation in nuclear power, solar cells, and smart grids, but also talked about business plans for technology that are already in place. He discussed a financial market for investing in medium-risk renewable energy technologies or businesses that manage the permits, liability, installation, and repair of solar panels on residential rooftops.

Chu won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997, has been a professor of physics, and was the chair of the physics department at Stanford, as well as the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He was appointed secretary of energy in 2009. Tim McNulty, Carnegie Mellon’s associate vice president for government relations, reiterated that the students and faculty made it possible for two U.S. secretaries to visit campus just this month.

Pittsburgh was just one stop on Chu’s trip this week, which he took in order to “participate in events across the country to highlight America’s investments in cutting-edge energy innovations that are laying the building blocks for an American economy built to last,” according to a Department of Energy press release. While in Pittsburgh, Chu toured the facilities at the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). The NETL is the only national laboratory that remains government-owned and -operated; the others are now operated by local businesses or universities.

The program was hosted by the Tepper School of Business Energy Club and the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center (CEIC).