Chu has a regulation success story ready to appease these concerns. Starting in the 1970s, engineers, faced with the mere threat of regulation, quickly redesigned the refrigerator to be more efficient. "I cannot emphasize how important this was," Chu said in response to a question from Representative Jane Harman of California. "If you look at the energy saved today — we have roughly 150 million refrigerators. And the energy we're saving today relative to 1974 standards is actually more than all of the wind and solar energy we're now producing in the United States, just from refrigerators alone."
No eureka moment led Chu to decide to confront climate change so directly. "This actually came gradually," he says. "Maybe six or seven years ago, I got concerned about the energy problem. As I started to read more and more, I came to realize this could be really serious." At the time, he was still a professor at Stanford. At physics conferences, in addition to his laser-cooling talks, he began to offer a lecture on energy. He joined the board of the Hewlett Foundation, a nonprofit organization that was deeply involved in environmental issues, and he met many "like-minded souls," he says. In 2004, his former boss back at Bell, then head of Lawrence Berkeley, was moving on and urged Chu to at least interview for the position. It may have seemed like a leap, but the duties at Lawrence Berkeley would really be a shift in scale and not in type from his job at Bell. "My first answer was no," Chu says. "I didn't have aspirations to be a big bureaucrat." But soon he had second thoughts. "If I really was interested in doing something about climate change, this would be a good platform. If I could get some of the best scientists to Lawrence Berkeley and get them to shift their interest, it might have some impact." Lawrence Berkeley offered him the job the afternoon he interviewed.
Turning Lawrence Berkeley into a mecca for climate-change research might have been overreaching, but Chu had a lot to offer the scientists he sought to attract, including the facilities of one of the nation's largest research labs and freedom from the academic infighting often found in smaller university physics departments. At Lawrence Berkeley, Chu succeeded in starting many of the blue-sky programs he hopes will lead to genuine breakthroughs. One Lawrence Berkeley team is working on automated demand response, a feature of a new, "smart" electric grid that will help lower energy use at peak hours. Another wants to genetically alter plant species like switchgrass and miscanthus for use as biofuels. Yet another is bioengineering synthetic microbes to break down cellulose in wild grasses or poplar trees, to make a gasoline substitute that's greener than corn-based ethanols.
Chu is fond of pointing out the times that science has averted global disaster in the past. He frequently cites the work of fellow Nobelists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, who found a means of fixing nitrogen for use in fertilizer, and Norman Borlaug, who developed high-yield and disease-resistant varieties of wheat; their work transformed agriculture and saved millions of lives by preventing famine. Chu deeply believes that science and technology can and must perform a similar service today. "The first [industrial revolution] allowed us to transition from muscle power, humans and animals, to using carbon-based fuels," he says. "The unintended consequences were direct air pollution — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, smog. And we used science to clean that up. This is a much more serious problem: namely, how do we get our energy in a much more carbon-free manner?
"I'm an optimist. It will happen," he says. And then he adds a note that's as close as the optimist comes to dire warning. "But if we just continue doing things the way we do them today... Well, we don't have that much time. Let's put it that way."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.