For this month's Environmental Outlook: Ten years ago, Israel experienced a prolonged drought that forced the country to come up with a strategy to address water scarcity. What its experience could teach an increasingly water-starved planet.
With gas prices fluctuating around $4, political debate is heating up over reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. The president has called for one-third less oil imports in the next decade. House Republicans have proposed measures to expand and expedite offshore oil and gas drilling. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu joins us to describe new programs to develop clean technologies, speed the roll-out of electric vehicles and help borrowers make energy-efficient home improvements. The Nobel Prize-winning scientist also talks about his mission to stop global climate change.
- Steven Chu U.S. secretary of energy
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu talks to Diane Rehm about the rise in oil prices and President Obama’s decision to restore offshore drilling.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu talks to Diane Rehm about fracking and what it means in terms of clean energy.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Steven Chu is the 12th U.S. secretary of energy. He's also the first person with a Nobel Prize in science to serve in the cabinet of any president. Secretary Chu joins me to talk about the challenges of carrying out the administration's energy strategy while also dealing with economic, political, technical and natural disasters. Of course, you are welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, sir. Welcome.
SECRETARY STEVEN CHUThank you and welcome.
REHMLast week, the president announced a Justice Department investigation into possible fraud in terms of the oil markets. Past administrations have done the same thing and never found a thing. What do you believe this administration can do?
CHUWell, I think it's just a recognition that this -- we're being whipsawed by oil prices, that the administration feels the personal pain of every American as the price of gasoline goes up at the pump. And if there is a possibility that there is speculation, there is manipulation in the prices, we certainly want to find out about it and make sure it doesn't happen.
REHMDo you believe there is?
CHUWell, I don't -- I can't really say, and so let's just say we will be supporting the Department of Justice. The EIA, the Energy Information Administration, does have a lot of statistics on these things, and so we stand ready in that role to help the Justice Department.
REHMDo you think that the current pain we're seeing at the pump could possibly lead to new legislation?
CHUWell, I think, in the end -- and this is where the president has been very forceful -- this is not the first or the second or even the third of oil shocks. And if you look in the long term about what's going to be happening because of the rise prosperity, in the developing world especially, that we see a higher demand in the price of oil, and we also see that you're going to more exotic forms of oil, more unconventional oil, in many cases, harder and more expensive to extract oil. So while the price may go up and down in the near term, I think, the long-term trend will say that we have to -- as Americans, as a country -- begin to diversify our transportation supply and to use oil as efficient a way as possible.
REHMDoes the president's decision to restore offshore drilling leave you comfortable?
CHUYes. I think the president has, in the past several months after Macondo spill, been allowing leases to go forward. These are going to be continuing. There is also, on land, a lot of development, and this will continue. But then again, one has to remember that we're a country that currently use in 2010 about 22 percent of the oil, while we produce 11 percent. Of the proven reserves, we have about 2 percent. And so in -- again, in the short and midterm, as long as increased production is part of a comprehensive strategy going forward, we should do this and -- but we have to develop these resources responsibly. And the president made very clear, especially in deepwater drilling, that you have to show that you can actually have some secondary containment and -- but there have been many leases that have been allowed since the Macondo spill.
REHMConsidering the fact -- and we talked with an oil industry executive last week -- considering the fact that one can never know what the next problem could be, how can offshore drilling ever be considered safe?
CHUWell, it's like everything else in technology in the world. You know, these accidents happen. We have to look very carefully when they happen, how to prevent the next one from happening and up the safety record. So with Macondo -- I was intimately involved in there for three or four months -- and there were a lot of lessons that were learned from that. There is -- the oil commission made numerous recommendations in how to make oil recovery, exploration and recovery much safer. But I also should say that in every instance in -- when there is technology involved, whether it's an automobile, an airplane, an oil rig, you name it, you learn from previous mistakes. And you go forward, and you make it much safer.
CHUAnd so I believe that we can make deepwater drilling much safer than it has been in the past, and the administration is committed to doing that. That doesn't say that because of that terrible spill that we should stop exploration. I think we can just do much of -- just as when an airplane crashes, we don't say, okay, no more airplanes.
REHMBut the airplane safety record in this country over the past few years has been pretty darn good. Considering both the short and long-term damage of what's happened in the Gulf as a result of that spill, how can we go forward simply on the assurances that you are making, that the administration is making, that the oil companies are making? Well, we've learned from our experience. We know now what not to do.
CHUNo. I think it goes much deeper than that. I think they're already -- again, a requirement is that the oil companies who do deepwater drilling have to come up with a secondary containment in case the blowout prevention platforms, the so-called BOPs, do fail. There are a number of other things. It's not just a BOP. There were a number of other things that can be improved. And, quite frankly, in hindsight, some of the regulations weren't being, you know, uniformly enforced. And so there's a -- you first enforce the regulations that are already in place. There's going to be developed a new set of regulations.
CHUAlso, the Department of Interior and -- in conjunction with Department of Energy and other agencies will really have to up their game and get it so that the oversight and the technical oversight and the quality will be such that you can actually have a dialogue with the oil companies and they, in fact, cannot continue to develop deepwater resources unless it is made significantly safer. Now, their track record has been they have been going to safer and safer practices, but not at the tempo we would like.
REHMDr. Steven Chu is secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. You can join us, 800-433- 8850. Send us your email. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. I think a great many people in this country were pleased that a Nobel Prize-winning scientist was named to head the Department of Energy. However, what you are in now is a political realm. It's not just energy. It's not just science. It's politics. How does your interest in science blend with how this is going to work politically?
CHUWell, it's an asset. Quite frankly, many of the decisions facing the country and the American public are really so interlaced with what's happening technologically in the world around us. And so, as the head of the Department of Energy, because of my background in science, because I have a lot of friends in various fields in science and engineering, there's a great resource where one can tap into. Again, for example, we talked about deepwater drilling. There's nuclear safety.
CHUThere are all sorts of issues having to do with energy, gas recovery, which are -- a large part of it is actually technical knowledge of how you can improve things and actually introduce best -- industrial best practices to make these things environmentally safe, to keep our water supply safe. So, as a scientist, one can bring these all in. Then, of course, ultimately, it goes into a political realm. And, yes, you have to be cognizant of that. But, I think, having technical knowledge doesn't actually disqualify you from introducing that scientific and technological input. And it should be a necessary part of the national dialogue.
REHMBut let me give you a specific example. How do you, as a scientist and as someone who heads the Department of Energy, counter those who argue there is no such thing as global warming?
CHUWell, I think I just try to patiently explain the facts, that if you look at what has been happening -- first, that there's evidence. Has the temperature of the earth been changing over the last 100, 150 years? The answer is yes. Then you can say, well, what -- and that's just a fact. That's not really up for debate. As it increases, there are bumps and wiggles. We don't understand in detail in this five-year or 10-year period why there was a plateau, why there was a dip. But the overall trend over 150 years is unmistakable. Then you say, well, what has changed? What has changed -- again, an incontrovertible fact -- was that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone up. And because carbon dioxide has gone up, the heat is no longer escaping.
REHMDr. Steven Chu, secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. When we come back, your calls. Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you just joined us, Dr. Steven Chu is with me in the studio. He is, of course, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. And if you'd like to join us, the phone lines are open, 800-433-8850. Just before the break, Dr. Chu, you were talking about the evidence that global warming is actually taking place.
CHUYeah, so to finish what I was saying -- I'll keep this very short and simple -- the amount of energy hitting the earth from the sun, as measured by satellite -- invisible light, infrared, heat, sunspots, ions, you name it -- it has 11-year cycle. But over a 35-year period, it's been flat. It cycles up and down, but, overall, it's been flat. During that time, the temperature of the earth has gone up. During that time, greenhouse gases have increased. Energy in is roughly the same, energy out less because the greenhouse gases that humans put up there have decreased the amount of energy leaving. So it would be, on the long-term, farfetched to try to explain why the average temperature of the earth would not increase.
REHMOn the other hand, if you took a longer view, a 5-, 6-, 700-year view, could it not be proven that these are simply natural cycles that take place?
CHUYes. I think a lot of the people who are skeptical about that, point to the fact that if you look back 800,000 years, we've gone through several ice ages. And they're absolutely correct. But there's also something else that you need to point out, that we are, in relative -- over the last 2 million years, we're in new territory. The amount of carbon dioxide has increased substantially beyond anything in the last million years. Now, if you go back even further, we actually go back to old territory because, previously, the earth -- there were epochs where the earth was a warmer place, where there was more carbon dioxide.
CHUThe trouble with that is it was a very, very different world. And something -- and what we are afraid of is the movement from the world we currently have to this new world -- being stimulated by our greenhouse gas emissions, will bring us into this new world in such a rapid pace that there are great risks involved.
REHMAnd how much of what's happening is manmade?
CHUThat's a very good question because, again, people will say -- and this is a legitimate question -- how do you know the increase in carbon dioxide is actually due to humans? And, in fact, there are some very clear smoking guns. And this is a little complicated, but it has to do with the isotopic abundance of rare isotopes of carbon. There's a radioactive form of carbon -- as an example, carbon-14, which we use for dating. Carbon-14 is made in the upper atmosphere due to cosmic rays. Once it's made, it begins to decay with 5,700-year lifetime. That carbon mixes in with the biosphere, if you will.
CHUAll things living will incorporate that carbon. Now, suppose you have a living thing -- whether it's a plant or an animal, whatever -- it's -- it dies. It's no longer connected to the biosphere. Now, normally, what happens is it dies. It gets recycled, if you will, by microbes and other things and eventually goes back in. But suppose you actually bury it and bury it for 1 million years or 5 million years. During that time, all the radioactive carbon has decayed away. And so when you take that and burn it, for example, as fossil fuel, you're releasing carbon. But it no longer has radioactive carbon.
CHUSo what we are seeing now is that the amount of radioactive carbon in the atmosphere has been changing. It's been going down. If there was only a steady state -- trees grow, they bloom, they die, microbes recirculate, then comes off as methane, carbon dioxide, because they're rotting -- it's all within a 5,600-- 6,000-year lifetime, but if you bury it for millions of years -- very different. So the amount of non-radioactive carbon is increasing. And so the obvious culprit is -- it's fossil fuel that's been de-radioactive. It's been under the ground for too long.
REHMAnd that leads me to the next question. What is it that you would consider and define as clean energy?
CHUWell, I think if you look at the current new forms of energy we now have, which are called -- which we call baseload energy -- this is oil, natural gas, nuclear. Those forms of energy all have issues, and then there are other forms of energy -- wind, solar, hydro. Now, to many people, those forms of energy also have issues. But, you know, on a ranking order, certainly, I would put wind, solar energy as significantly cleaner than the other forms of energy. So what we need to do is make this transition to these renewable forms of energy as quickly as we can, and -- but do it in an economically viable way.
REHMAt the same time, you have gas companies stepping up their exploration. The so-called fracking procedure in the Marcellus Shale, complaints about water contamination, complaints about ruining the land -- same as with mountaintop mining -- I mean, where are we while these processes continue?
CHUWell, this is something the administration takes very seriously. And, in fact, the president has charged the Department of Energy and its advisory board through the secretary of Energy to form a subcommittee to look at fracking and recovery and production of shale gas. And over the last several weeks, we have been putting together this company. This is the beginning of all the things -- the EPA is doing a number of doings, Interior doing a number of things. But in terms of the charge of the Department of Energy and its subcommittee, which is being done in conjunction with all the stakeholders like EPA and Interior, we, as a very first goal, try to identify what are the issues, what are the best practices?
CHUWe believe it's possible, but we need to look into this, that it is possible to extract that shale gas in a way that protects the water, that protects people's health, that protects those things. What I -- I have looked into this, and certainly there's evidence that some bad things have happened.
CHUWell, there's water pollution. There have been instances where some of the fracking fluids have been found in water. There have been instances where natural gas has been appearing in water supplies where it should have never appeared -- issues like that. And so the question is, what is the cause of that? Can they be mitigated and prevented? Now, if they can be prevented, then you need to do those best practices to prevent it. There -- it could be the case -- and, again, I don't want to prejudge what this advisory committee does.
CHUBut it could very well be the case that there are a few bad actors. As in everything in the world, there are a few bad actors that are doing some things that are certainly -- should not be allowed. We would ask -- we would need some of the leaders in the industry to step forward. We would want to form a group that says these are best practices that really minimize the potential harm to the environment, and especially to our water supplies.
REHMNow, I go back to the Gulf. And what you're saying is that now that these accidents have occurred with fracking -- the contamination of water, the appearance of gasoline or gas in water, the ruination of the land -- now, we need to take a look. Why wasn't it done before the practices began?
CHUWell, there was. There were regulations. And so what happens when we find something bad that has occurred is to say, okay, what has happened? How much do you improve the regulatory framework in order so that you prevent some of these bad actors from continuing these practices? And so it's, again, like everything else. You know, we learn, we find out what's happening, and then you say, okay, this is certainly what I anticipate, is that, you know, the ingredients to the fracking fluids will probably have to come out. And companies will have to say these are things we're using.
CHUBut this is, again -- it's -- we're going to march forward, and we're going to need to do this. There are great potential energy supplies in natural gas and oil in the United States, but we have to develop them safely. And that's something that the Obama...
REHMYou talked about this subcommittee in collaboration with the EPA and other agencies. The Heritage Foundation, as I'm sure you know, has called for cutting $6 billion in your own Energy Department's budget. The EPA is under attack in Pennsylvania. The governor has ordered the EPA not to look carefully at what's going on with fracking. This is where politics come back to rest on your shoulders.
CHUYes. But again, this is also where science comes to rest on my shoulders because science will give us better ways of monitoring what is going on. Science will give us a better way so that one does not make the mistakes that, in all strong -- probably have happened in the past.
REHMBut, considering the wealth and power of lobbyists, can science win out against that kind of pressure?
CHUWell, yes, because it -- I think it'd be a false choice to say either you go and you continue these practices because America needs the gas. Science and technology says we can do this. We can do this safely, and we can do it in an economically viable way so that we can still develop these resources. For example, over the weekend, I spent a pretty intense weekend in preparation for forming this committee, reading a lot about the fracking technology. And it has come a long way in the last five years, that you can actually monitor in great detail what you're fracking, where the cracks are going, things of that nature.
CHUSo here, again, is a good example that science gives you solutions that you might not have had five or 10 years ago, just as in science and technology will give us solutions to dramatically lower the cost of renewable energy, how we think it's achievable within, if not this decade, certainly, in the next decade, that renewables, like solar -- photovoltaics -- would be cost competitive with any form of energy without subsidy. And if you can get there, let's say, in 10 years, 15 years, and you can simultaneously build up the transmission and distribution system and toggle back and forth between the fossil fuel and the renewables, and you have energy storage, it's going to take a couple of decades to do this. But if you do this, then we're off to a cleaner world, a self- sufficiency in America and great economic opportunity.
REHMDr. Steven Chu, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Are the renewables being given the kinds of subsidies that the oil companies have been given?
CHUWell, we are subsidizing renewable energy. But the oil companies, as you know, have continued to get subsidies since about 1914, 1917, where the first subsidies occurred. And the president has called for a stop of $4 billion worth of oil subsidies. You know, logically speaking, I think 100 years is enough to -- it's -- this is a very successful...
REHMWhy are they getting subsidies at all?
CHUWell, that is a good question as then -- that's why the president called for a halt to that. They are a very successful industry. They don't need those subsidies, whereas the newer industries, like solar, like wind, like geothermal could use some subsidies and...
REHMBut, again, aren't you up against the politics of the oil companies?
CHUWell, I think there's a larger issue here, and that is to convince America that there is a race going on. Those countries that developed those technologies, both on energy efficiency and on clean energy, will have a multi-trillion-dollar-a-year market. This is why countries like China and Korea and Japan, Western Europe are investing so much in this. They see this as a credible market opportunity. Let me give you one example -- electric vehicles. The crucial part on an electric vehicle is the battery. There had been great progress in batteries. And many experts feel that, within the next several years, the price of batteries will certainly go down by 50 percent, maybe by 60, 70 percent.
CHUThe energy density of these batteries could go up by at least the factor two, possibly by three or four, so that in a mass market a $20-, $30,000 car -- let's say a $20,000 car, you can drive 300 miles by plugging up without recharging. Three hundred to 350, 400 miles in an economical car, then you wouldn't think at all. You wouldn't -- you'd race out and buy these automobiles. This would also contribute a lot to our energy independence, our importing of oil. Every country realizes that this is within grasp. Every country realizes, and every company says, if we can do this, we have an incredible world market. And we want the United States to be the leader in this technology, so we cannot only use it ourselves, but we can export it all over the world.
REHMHere is our first email from Tom who says, "For many years, I thought we should create a Manhattan project for renewable fuels. I think DOE would be the natural leader on this. I wonder if Dr. Chu could comment on the possibility of taking the top five or 10 ideas into a project of this nature and really making a push to develop technologies required to accomplish energy independence."
CHUWell, I think the idea of recognizing that this is of such national importance that goes directly to the heart of our national security. Our energy security is so intimately tied to our national security that, going into projects, whether it be photovoltaics or batteries, advanced biofuels, you name it, I think, is something we should be doing, And that's why the president, even though in these very hard fiscal times, has said we're going to have to cut our budget. But what he did not want to cut is the investments in innovation that will lead to prosperity in America.
REHMBut you're dealing with a Republican Congress that wants to see everything cut. How do you move forward?
CHUWell, I think there are people on both sides of the aisle who recognize that this is America's future that's at stake. It's America's prosperity that's at stake.
REHMDr. Steven Chu, he is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, secretary of the Department of Energy.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones. Let's go first to Raleigh, N.C. Good morning, Allen. You're on the air.
ALLENThank you very much. My question is, would the secretary give us his opinion on the comparison between hydrofracturing extraction of natural gas in comparison with the other big ways we're getting oil locally these days, coil -- coal and offshore oil, as far as environmental impact especially?
CHUGood question. I think all these have risks. As you go deeper offshore, you're going to more remote locations where you can actually have your hands on it. Macondo was a good example of that, where you're one mile deep and you have to do things remotely. You're dealing with higher pressures, differences in temperatures. The fracking in -- if gas actually is, in a certain sense, much more known technology, there are ways to greatly mitigate the risks if, I would say, best practices are used in how you actually seal the wells, the casements, double line -- things of that nature. There are number of things, really, that should be standard practices in the fracking of gas and also for oil as well.
CHUSo, I think, in any case, the -- you have to drive industry towards adapting those practices where you really have greatly reduced the risks of anything, of any contamination, especially contamination to water supplies.
REHMAll right. To Gulf Shores, Ala. Good morning, Mary. You're on the air.
MARYGood morning. I am very pleased you're covering fracking nuclear natural gas. Of course, related to that and the Gulf of Mexico recent tragedy, I don't call it a spill. My question is on the international protocol for dealing with a Gulf disaster, spill, whatever, call for use of no dispersants whatsoever in all other developed countries, pretty much around the world, acoustic valves, and then strict regulations that are enforced and extremely well-thought out, and the use of supertankers only to clean up, and generally the government takes charge.
MARYActually, the Oil Pollution Act mandates that the government take charge, and I found it very odd that BP was allowed to speak to the issue, along with the Coast Guard, saying that we only had 1,000 to 5,000. When NOAA had a meeting on April 27, said, clearly -- postulated that we could have as much as 64,000 barrels to 110,000 barrels per day. That meeting was held in Seattle and publicized in the Mobile Press-Register.
REHMAll right, Mary. Thanks for your call.
CHUWell, first to the amount of the spill. I think this is something where the earlier estimates were low. That's now known. The science team, plus the NOAA science teams, have determined their -- that much better estimates, and it was certainly much more than originally thought. There were earlier estimates, as you said, but there were estimates all over the map in the first couple of weeks. Going back to the issue of dispersants, I'm -- quite frankly, I don't know where one is. Again, I'm not into regulatory realm. I was brought in there as helping technically to contain the leak, and so I'm not sure what is actually out there in terms of dispersants.
CHUYou know, just strictly from a scientific point of view, not as a government official, I said, you know, the verdict is not in on whether the dispersants were good or bad, did some good or bad. The -- what was true is that this was a horrible, horrible spill, and it's going to have repercussions for many years. And we just have to find out what's really going on. In the meantime, you know, my role is to help Interior and others to help design technical solutions that's, say, to decrease the probability of a leak like this ever happening again.
REHMDr. Steven Chu, he is secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. For those of you who might be interested, we are videotaping this segment of the program. Clips should be up within about an hour. And let's go to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Rex.
REXGood morning. I have a question for the secretary and one for Diane. I have a strong interest in life-long adult science learning, which seems to be even more deficient in this country, even than science learning in schools. And when -- I was excited when a professor was chosen for the cabinet. I had hoped that he might be able to spend more time as explainer-in-chief. And perhaps, you can address, Dr. Chu, ways that we can increase life-long adult science learning. Finally, for Diane, in many of your comments about global climate change, there seems to be an inconvenient synonym of global climate worsening. I'm not a denier, but I do wonder if we're headed into an era of global climate improvement. And I'll take answers on the air. Thank you.
REHMAll right. Dr. Chu?
CHUWell, I certainly am delighted, as my close friends know, to try to explain what I do understand as clearly as I can and do take the opportunity when I'm out there speaking publicly. And I share your yearning and your desire to have life-long science learning as part of not only the education of children but of adults. I think many of the issues that we face as Americans have a strong technical component, whether it's health care, whether it's energy, whether it's the environmental issues. These are all things where science comes into play in a very intimate way. And another part, as I've said before, science is also -- forms a foundation for our future economic prosperity. And it's been part of that for the last century in the United States, and it's going to be part of that to the future of any country.
REHMAs to the question of climate improvement, over the weekend, we saw this extraordinary -- these extraordinary tornados out in St. Louis. People have said -- I have heard scientists say that the strength of tornados, hurricanes, floods, storms of any and all kinds are, again, indications that the climate is changing not for the better but for the worse. How would you respond?
CHUWell, I think if you take some isolated areas, if you're in a place that is going to be warmer and it's cold -- very, very cold and it's going to be warmer, you can say that, yes, this is improvement. But you -- and there will be pockets where there would be some benefit. However, it's -- on the whole, if you look at what people have been doing over the last, not only centuries, but millennia, where they live, how they develop their habits, what their agriculture is, what you really don't want is very, very rapid change. In -- and by rapid change, I mean in a period of 100, 200 years, you get into totally different climates because that actually -- not only for humans, but for many, many species, that has very, very disruptive consequences.
REHMIs that what you see happening?
CHUWell, this is certainly one of the predictions. It depends in how much warmer the earth gets on average. Again, we say climate change because there are even -- will be some cooling. In different locations, there will be some cooling. But, certainly, if you go to some of the more serious business-as-usual scenarios, what you see as you go to higher and higher average temperature increases, that larger and larger number of species will become extinct as -- and that's one of the things. So -- but going back to people, huge numbers of people would be displaced, rich agricultural regions would be wiped out while others might improve. But, on balance, it's more worse than better.
REHMHere's an email whose -- the author asks you to briefly explain the work that earned you a Nobel Prize in Physics, how that work was related to the nuclear industry and did reduced petroleum fund that work? If so, do you think that money influenced your views on the BP oil spill and offshore drilling? How unbiased is your judgment about continued support of the nuclear industry?
CHUAll right. First, my work was using lasers to cool atoms, atoms in vapor form, to very, very low temperatures. It started as a very esoteric goal that you can actually be able to cool atoms that are normally moving around at the speed of supersonic jet planes and to slow down their motion so they're moving at velocities of millimeters per second.
REHMTo what end?
CHUTo what end is a great question. It turns out, once atoms are moving that slowly, they can be easily manipulated using electric magnetic fields, laser fields. And let me give you a few applications that came immediately out of this work. The first was we can make better atomic clocks and inertial sensors. The atomic clocks are the instruments we use that's at the basis of our global positioning satellite system. Atomic clocks are the basis of how we actually send information around the world. In telecommunications, without atomic clocks to synchronize, we wouldn't have the speed and precision of transferring information.
CHUInertial systems, it turns out that you can measure accelerations and rotations much better this way, and they are now being prototyped for that. It turns out -- and some of my early work showed -- that, in addition to holding out the atoms with light beams, you can hold on to individual biomolecules. And the idea to hold on to a single piece of DNA or a single protein and measure forces between various biological molecules has opened up, really, another new world into biology and medicine. And this single molecule manipulation has become a very big deal in biology and medicine.
REHMWith potential effects to Parkinson's, to Alzheimer's?
CHUWell, it first started as a research tool that could shed new light on what was going on in biological systems. But the ability to measure forces, plus the ability of ultrasensitive fluorescence detection, is now finding its way into many medical applications, including new cancer drugs. So it exploded from what we thought was just would be fun to do. We knew about the atomic clocks, but we didn't about all these other things. So, now, this has nothing to do with BP or the nuclear industry. And I can continue that later.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Did BP fund any of your work?
CHUNo, not at all. This was, really, nothing -- actually, at the very beginning, we didn't think it had anything to do with anything related to oil. But it turns out that being able to measure the acceleration due to gravity very sensitively turns out to be one of the mechanisms for future oil discoveries. But BP never funded any of the work. In fact, BP did, while I was director of Lawrence Berkeley Lab, fund University California, Lawrence Berkeley Lab and University of Illinois to look at biofuels and advance biofuels as an alternate source of transportation fuel. And so they funded that, but that's not my personal work. That was more the work of these three institutions, Berkeley, Illinois and Lawrence Berkeley Lab.
REHMAll right. And let's go, finally, to Dan in Farmington, N.H. Good morning. You're on the air.
DANGood morning. I -- real quickly, for over a decade now, we've been hearing a steady hum of the same empty promises. Massive increase in energy density of batteries, massive decrease in size, weight and cost especially, and the same thing with photovoltaic and wind power, where, for over a decade, we've been hearing the same promise. We're on the verge of making these technologies cost-competitive with traditional fuel technologies. And, again, I hear the same promises this morning from a cabinet-level secretary in the United States executive.
DANI'm wondering when we're ever going to see these things appear. We've been hearing the same promise that this is on the doorstep now for over a decade, and I'm just wondering if anybody's ever actually going to put their money where their mouth is.
CHUSure. If you look at -- let's take photovoltaics over the last five or six years, and you can feel free to look at the data. But over the last five or six years, the full cost of installations on what everybody call utility scale photovoltaics -- this is 10 MW or above -- has dropped by 50 percent. That's just a fact. If you look at every business plan of companies, not only in the United States, but around the world, their business plan says it's going to drop by another 50 percent before the end of this decade or we go out of business, and so it's already dropped by 50 percent on the last five or six years.
CHUAnd there's -- and if you -- and if I -- I talked to the, you know -- the CEOs, the scientists in these companies, and they know what's coming down the pipe. It's a very, very competitive world. So, I think, in photovoltaics, we have seen a rapid decrease in the price. In fact, it's come down by a factor of more than 10 over the past decade-and-a-half. But we're seeing an acceleration of that. With regard to batteries, if you asked me five years ago, I would have been skeptical that we're right around the corner to new batteries.
CHUBefore I took this job, when I was director of Lawrence Berkeley Lab, I was also on the scientific board of a battery company, so I know a little bit about these things as well. What I've seen in the last two or three years are dramatically different types of batteries, improvements in the batteries and -- that are now going into cars like Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. I see the next generation, which is still a research, is not ready for production, where, again, it could be another factor to drop in price and an increase in energy density.
REHMWell, clearly, lots more to talk about. We're out of time. I hope you'll come back.
CHUSure. Thank you.
REHMDr. Steven Chu, he's secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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