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Should energy secretary resign over $537 million mistake? Con: We should thank Chu - not castigate him

Posted: November 11, 2011 - 1:04am

GREEN BAY, Wis. — In most years the secretary of energy gets little public attention, but this year is different.

Republicans like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are calling for Secretary Steven Chu to step down because they disagree with his efforts to change energy priorities and they blame him for a failed federal loan to a solar energy company. They couldn’t be more wrong about these questions.

Our energy choices are vital for the nation’s economy and security even if typically they are ignored by the public and policymakers.

The Obama administration has tried to reduce the nation’s dependency on fossil fuels and create a more balanced and stable mix of energy sources that can boost the economy and create jobs now and in the future, while also improving the environment and public health and reducing reliance on imported oil.

The United States depends heavily on fossil fuels to provide the energy we need to power our homes, run our businesses, and fuel our cars, trucks, and planes. About 85 percent of the energy we use comes from those fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — and about half of our electricity comes from burning coal, often in aging and polluting power plants.

Using fossil fuels in this way worsens air quality and contributes to climate change that is likely to have devastating consequences in the future. We and other nations need to reduce use of such fuels and do so soon.

Chu and the Obama White House have tried for three years to stimulate the growth of the renewable energy sector and spark technological innovations such as more efficient batteries for electric vehicles, commercially viable production of biofuels, and cost-effective solar energy panels.

The nation’s economic future hinges on the success of these efforts, particularly given that China has rapidly moved ahead of the United States and will dominate world markets if we do not keep up. The global clean energy market already is worth $240 billion and is growing fast. Just last year the Chinese government spent $30 billion to finance that nation’s solar energy companies. Should we do any less?

Chu’s critics in Congress and elsewhere have seized on the case of one Department of Energy loan to a promising solar energy company. That company, Solyndra, declared bankruptcy after receiving a large loan. The decision by career DOE staff to approve the loan was flawed in some respects, and yet no venture capitalist would expect 100 percent of investments to pay off.

Most of the other DOE approved loans are doing exactly what Chu and the White House sought. They are helping to develop new clean energy technologies and markets and creating thousands of jobs for a very modest expenditure of federal funds. That’s the conclusion of a newly released Brookings Institution study.

For eight years the Bush administration did little to promote renewable energy technologies, but instead deepened our reliance on fossil fuels. That was the wrong direction to take then and it is the wrong direction now.

Chu, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, has been instrumental in leading the United States in a more sensible direction. He should be thanked, not criticized, for his efforts.

Yet we are entering another contentious election cycle and congressional Republicans are fired up over Chu because they think they have found one more way to fault President Barack Obama and ensure his failure in the next election.

If the American public has any real concern about its energy future they will recognize this ploy for what it is: a cynical political attack that singles out one questionable decision of hundreds and ignores the enormous benefits of the larger effort to move the country toward a more diversified, secure, and safe energy future.

• Kraft is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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