For Chu, working with the laws of nature may turn out to be easier than testing the limits of Washington red tape. A week after the Earth Day debate on Capitol Hill, the cap-and-trade legislation was already in trouble. Representative Henry Waxman of California, the lead author of the bill, stalled its movement because of continued uncertainties about costs, both to industry and consumers. Committee members in both parties had to decide which industries would be granted free carbon credits (and for how long), a measure that would help companies to subsidize efforts to develop cleaner technologies. And projections about the economic impact of the bill vary wildly. Official EPA estimates put average annual cost per household from higher energy prices at $98 to $140; estimates commissioned by an industry group put the average cost per household at $1,000 in 2015, and $1,400 in 2020.
Reforms this sweeping inevitably come with mistakes, such as the one that Representative Greg Walden of Oregon brought to Chu's attention before the House Energy Committee: the narrow definition of "qualified hydropower." One of the biggest impediments to the growth of wind power is the difficulty of storing the power it generates. Using wind power to pump water to a higher elevation, where it can be released and run through a turbine when extra electricity is needed, offers a simple solution. But the Waxman-Markey bill, as written, seemed to make pump storage, in such a circumstance, illegal.
Walden took the opportunity to embarrass Chu; the sticky definition came up on a page of the bill that the secretary admitted he hadn't read. It was a small moment — Chu was contrite, and Walden didn't stop to gloat — but it revealed a larger concern. If Chu hopes to succeed in Washington and forge a consensus for his agenda, he needs both to maneuver around accidents like these and to win the vote of people like Walden, pro-business types who are often skeptical of government regulation.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.