May 28, 2009 3:00 am

Energy chief seeks efficient way to cut coal

The US needs to focus urgently on wasting less energy to minimise the number of new coal-fired power stations that might be needed, Steven Chu, the country's energy secretary, said yesterday.

Mr Chu also called for closer co-operation with China on the development of new energy efficiency technologies.

He is the most prominent of 20 Nobel laureates visiting London this week for a symposium on climate change, hosted by the Prince of Wales.

Last month, Mr Chu admitted that the US might have to build new coal-fired plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, in order to safeguard energy supplies.

That recognition of the reality of US energy policy put him at odds with some green groups, which had cheered the appointment of the 1997 Nobel physics prize winner as a symbol of Barack Obama's declared determination to take global warming seriously and put science at the heart of his administration.

Coal has been the focus of much of Greenpeace International's campaigning in recent months. However, much of the environmental movement remains enthusiastic about Mr Chu, the first Nobel laureate appointed to a cabinet-level position in the US.

"I have not changed my fundamental position," said Mr Chu in an interview with the Financial Times. "The use of coal without capture and sequestration is really not where we need to be. We have to go away from that."

Although he has been in the public eye before, as director for the past four years of the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, nothing prepared him for the attention he has received since taking charge of the US energy department.

Some political opponents cast doubts on whether his research background was the best preparation for the job. However, Mr Chu is set on regaining the initiative.

Earlier this month, he announced that $2.4bn (€1.7bn, £1.5bn) of the US economic stimulus package would be devoted to developing CCS - to remove carbon dioxide from power stations and lock it underground - which is not yet commercially proven.

"Many people might argue that one needs a moratorium [on building coal power stations] until we have developed the technology, but there will be no moratorium in India, China and other developing countries where the building is fastest," he said.

With more than 100 coal plants being started worldwide every year, energy efficiency is a vital way to cut demand for new power stations, he says. He sees the development of more energy-efficient buildings as a way of drawing the US and China together on climate change. Discussions have begun with China to establish ways of sharing knowledge.

In a hint of the influence of his career as a Californian scientist, working close to Silicon Valley, he laid out a vision of specialists from different countries working together on "open source" software to assist the construction of new buildings. China could become "a lab for testing lots of these design concepts".

With China set to build scores of cities - to house the equivalent of the entire US population - in the coming decades, ensuring that buildings are low-carbon from the outset will be crucial.

Mr Chu won his Nobel prize for discovering how to trap and cool atoms with laser light. He has not worked directly on nuclear power, but supports the technology and regards a US nuclear renaissance as urgent, given the need to turn away from fossil fuels.

No new nuclear plants have been approved in the US since the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster. To restart nuclear building, the energy department is helping Westinghouse to obtain approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its new AP1000 reactor. Mr Chu says the idea is to have "generic approval" for a reactor design, which can then be adapted quickly to specific sites.

He wants the whole process - from first application to turning on the power - to take less than 10 years, compared with 18 years in the 1970s. About 20 applications for new nuclear plants are being considered, he says, adding: "We are helping with loan guarantees for four applications."

Being a scientist helps in his new role. "I am very optimistic, always," he says. "That is part of my nature as a scientist. Scientists try to do things that haven't been done before."

Additional reporting by Carola Hoyos

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