Today’s New York Times introduces us to Energy Secretary-designate Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who was responsible for forming the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California, famous home of Peet’s and Pixar.

JBEI is a research facility dedicated to efforts to produce useable fuel from a type of plant cellulose called lignocelulose. If successful, that would mean fossil fuels can be supplemented or even replaced by renewable waste plant matter—e.g., stalks and stems—to power homes and businesses and for transportation. It would be a triumph of applied science, with vast and far-reaching effects.

This is one of a number of alternative fuel research projects Chu initiated and implemented during his tenure at Berkeley Lab. The current Secretary of Energy, research chemist Samuel Bodman, is one of the few members of the Bush Administration about whom I can’t find anything really negative to say; however, his energy approach seems to center on nuclear power, which requires costly infrastructure and perpetuates the vulnerable power-plant-based model of electric power.

To power a community with nuclear energy, you have to build an expensive nuclear plant. If accident or terrorism disrupts a nuclear plant, while that probably wouldn’t be dangerous by itself, entire towns, states, or regions could go dark—in August of 2003 such an accident shut off power for an estimated 50 million people in Ontario and eight northeastern states in the U.S. (and Al-Quaeda falsely claimed responsibility). On top of all that, nuclear energy is a useless option for cars, trucks, trains, and air travel—you can’t put a nuclear engine in an airplane, if only because of the weight of the necessary shielding.

Global warming and global warfare point to the need to embrace new sources for energy. Steven Chu is on the forefront of that effort. It’s good to see the incoming Obama administration supporting progress in this area.


And with that, I’m taking the week off. Happy holidays, one and all.

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