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Obama's Dr. Energy

The nominee for next Energy Secretary faced his Senate hearing today. Dr.
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Written by Harry Fuller, Contributor on

The nominee for next Energy Secretary faced his Senate hearing today. Dr. Steven Chu, head of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, has been outspoken in his views on global warming, energy conservation and fossil fuels. For today's purpose, getting confirmed, the Nobel Prize winning physicist tempered some of his sharper comments of the past.

Dr. Chu still applauds energy conservation as the first and easiest approach to energy independence for the U.S. He has been strongly anti-coal in the past but allows that some more coal plants to produce electricity might be needed as the nation converts away from fossil fuel.

Dr. Steven Chu. Courtesy Larence Berkeley Laboratory.

Dr. Chu also had mildly encouraging words for the nuclear industry. He can envision a few more plants being built in the U.S. The DOE now spends much more on nuclear weapon research and clean-up than it does on other energy programs.

In his brief prepared statement, Dr. Chu said, "It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.... At the same time, we face immediate threats to our economy and our national security that stem from our dependence on oil."

In the past Chu has favored much higher gas prices but said that the current economic mess precludes that, for now. Eventually, he said, high gasoline prices would produce more efficient cars and less oil importing.

CELLULOSIC ETHANOL

Dr. Chu eagerly talked about the potential for cellulosic ethanol production. Not made from corn or sugar. So he'd smile at this item. The first large-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the U.S. is being built in South Dakota. Just as corn-fuelled ethanol plants are closing and looking like competitive losers.

The cellulosic plant is being built by POET, and is to beign production in 2011. POET already has a number of traditional ethanol refining plants in the Corn Belt. Here's a map of those locations. Meanwhile Verenium has built a demonstration plant in Louisiana. Verenium comes at the biofuel business from a background in enzyme biology. They're using new technology to break down the plant material with the goal of producing alcohol more efficiently. Cellulosic ethanol can come from a variety of plant matter from switchgrass to poplar to corn cobs.

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