Chu Comes Out Swinging in Defense of Energy Hubs

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has steamed to the rescue of one of his flagship research programs less than a week after a congressional spending panel fired a warning shot across its bow.

Appearing yesterday before the House of Representatives energy and water appropriations subcommittee to defend the Department of Energy's 2011 overall budget request, Chu invoked several icons of scientific achievement in describing where his fledgling Energy Hubs program fits into DOE's overall portfolio of energy innovation. It was his clearest and most colorful explanation to date of how his so-called Bell Lablets differ from two other programs—the Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)—that have attracted far less criticism from legislators.

"When you think of the EFRCs," Chu said, "think about a collaborative team of scientists such as Watson and Crick unlocking the secrets of DNA and, along with their protein crystallographers in their team, creating the field of molecular biology. ... When you think of APRA-E, think of visionary risk-takers like Bill Hewlett and David Packard, who created an audio oscillator that jump-started an entire new industry in what we now call Silicon Valley. ... [And] when you think of the Hubs, think of large, mission-oriented research efforts such as the Manhattan Prject or the type of research at AT&T's Bell Laboratories that gave us the transistor."

Chu's impassioned defense of what he called "an integrated set of research and development initiatives that are critical to accelerating clean energy breakthroughs" was aimed at blunting attacks on the Hubs program. The House panel supported only one of the eight hubs he requested last year, although Congress eventually funded three, and last week it questioned his request for a fourth hub on advanced energy storage. "I'm beginning to get the sense that the committee and the staff appreciate what the EFRCs are and what ARPA-E is," Chu told reporters after the hearing, the last of a series on the department's 2011 budget. "But they're still wrestling with the hubs, which are the new kid on the block. We've tried to clarify it for them. ... But when it's something new, it takes time to get the idea across."

Legislators spent most of the hearing finding fault with the Obama Adminstration's decision to pull the plug on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada. But Chu appeared unruffled by the attacks, which included questions about the legality of a proposed restructuring of the office that oversees the project and the wisdom of DOE's turning its back on a site that might one day be resurrected.

Earlier, in his opening statement, he told legislators: "This is not a kitchen-sink approach. This work is being coordinated and prioritized with a full view of the pieces, and these pieces fit together. Discovering new energy solutions will take smart collaborators pushing the frontiers of science."