Saturday, December 13, 2008

Coal is My Worst Nightmare

WSJ | So Steven Chu, President-elect Obama’s likely choice to head the Department of Energy, is a proponent of energy efficiency and conservation as the first step in rejigging America’s energy mix. But since conservation alone won’t do it, what are his ideas about finding new supplies of energy?

Dr. Chu’s marquee work at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is the Helios Project. That’s an effort to tackle what Dr. Chu sees as the biggest energy challenge facing the U.S.: transportation. That’s because it’s a huge drain on U.S. coffers and an environmental albatross, Dr. Chu says.

Helios has focused largely on biofuels—but not the bog-standard kind made from corn and sugar. The Energy Biosciences Institute, a joint effort funded by BP, is looking to make second-generation biofuels more viable. Among the approaches? Researching new ways to break down stubborn cellulosic feedstocks to improve the economics of next-generation biofuels, and finding new kinds of yeast to boost fermentation and make biofuels more plentiful while reducing their environmental impact.

What about other energy sources? Big Coal won’t be very happy if Dr. Chu gets confirmed as head of the DOE—he’s really, really not a big fan. “Coal is my worst nightmare,” he said repeatedly in a speech earlier this year outlining his lab’s alternative-energy approaches.