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Live from #EIS13: Steven Chu, the “blocking and tackling” Energy Department secretary

In what may have been his final appearance in office, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that knowing now how it would be, he would have still gladly taken the office in 2009. Chu told the audience at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Maryland that he learned that it was most important to focus on hiring the right people to accomplish the Obama administration’s clean and sustainable energy initiatives, rather than just the initiatives themselves.

Having the right team in place allowed him as their leader to focus on providing them resources they needed and to remove obstacles and distractions on their path to reaching goals, Chu said. His job was “blocking and tackling … so that they can run with the ball.”

He worked to recreate the work atmosphere he enjoyed during his nine years at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist said the cramped quarters there forced everyone to monitor each others’ progress, which fostered discussions and challenges to individuals’ work, which ultimately led to stronger achievements. It was an atmosphere of “constructive confrontation.”

ARPA-E is a Department of Energy program designed to advance energy to the point where sustainable energy is the best solution, he said. Radical changes of all kinds have happened in society not because people saw that the new way was better than the old way. Chu pointed to the rapid change from horses to automobiles throughout America in the early 20th century. The transportation advantages of the car made the horse obsolete, to society moved on. That’s the type of change ARPA-E wants to facilitate, he said.

However, not everyone sees the transformative qualities of a new technology when it first arrives on the scene. Chu pointed to Wilbur Wright’s prediction in 1901 that mankind would not achieve flight for 50 years. Two years later, he and his brother Orville were the first men to fly.

Because people may not immediately see how innovative a new technology can be, ARPA-E and the Department of Energy must also demonstrate to leaders in Washington, D.C., as well as the American public as a whole, why such a program is so important, Chu said. Today, a push for clean and sustainable energy solutions will help fight harmful greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Quoting his letter to Department of Energy employees announcing that he was stepping down, Chu said the department has “a moral responsibility to the most innocent victims of adverse climate change. Those who will suffer the most are the people who are the most innocent: the world’s poorest citizens and those yet to be born.”