Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s goodbye was much the same as his hello. When the Nobel prize-winning scientist accepted President Obama’s offer in 2008 to lead the federal agency, he said that science would be his guidepost. And now that he will be leaving in February, he is repeating the same mantra.

Indeed, both political parties can agree in principle that science should dictate the allocation of both national investments and federal policy decisions. But such paths are often tinged with politics and the subsequent donations that the special interests are making. And so the reality is that energy policies are shaped by a multitude of factors, which consists of scientific underpinnings along with the people’s right to petition their government.

“In the scientific world, people are judged by the content of their ideas,” writes Secretary Chu, in a lengthy letter. “Advances are made with new insights, but the final arbitrator of any point of view are experiments that seek the unbiased truth, not the information cherry picked to support a particular point of view.”

The 2009 federal stimulus act had given the Energy Department about $36 billion to provide loans, research funds and seed money to promising clean energy technologies. The effort had also been intended to help lift the country to its feet -- a philosophy that has been championed by supporters and lampooned by opponents.

For example, Secretary Chu is especially proud of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funnels money to those projects that have huge risks but that also have an enormous potential payback. The agency was created during the Bush II tenure but didn’t receive any funding until 2009. Chu says that 11 of the program’s companies that were provided $40 million have attracted $200 million in private investments.

Two examples: The “SunShot” program that seeks to revitalize the rooftop solar industry and the “EV Everywhere Challenge” that is trying to advance electric vehicles and their internal batteries. Along those lines, he says that rooftop solar systems have doubled over four years and now total more 1,800 megawatts. Meantime, he says that in the last year, wind energy has accounted for 42 percent of all new energy capacity in the United States. 

Discrediting his Ideas

Those programs are replete with critics, who maintain that the U.S. government has played favorites with the people’s money. Those same skeptics point to the failure of Solyndra, a solar manufacturer that borrowed $528 million and that lost the whole thing.

“GDP growth in the United States has limped along at the anemic annual rate of 0.6 percent while China’s economy has soared at the annual rate of 9.12 percent, more than 15 times our own,” says Daniel Kish, senior VP with the Institute for Energy Research. “Clearly, the policies and priorities of Steven Chu’s energy department have benefitted our global competitors and intensified the economic pain felt by millions of unemployed Americans.”

Secretary Chu responds by saying that the loan guarantees have gone to 33 clean energy businesses. Those investments have supported 60,000 new jobs and generated $55 billion in economic investment. The deals that have failed include not just Solyndra but also Abound Solar, Evergreen and SpectraWatt.

“While critics try hard to discredit the program, the truth is that only one percent of of the companies we funded went bankrupt,” says Chu. “That one percent has gotten more attention than the 99 percent that have not. The test for America’s policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for many successes.”

The Obama administration, meantime, is also supporting loan guarantees to the nuclear industry and federal grants for advanced coal generation. With regard to nuclear energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency approved licenses for the first time in 30 years to build four reactors in two different locations: Georgia and South Carolina. It is also awarding $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to the two in Georgia, which is for Southern Co. and its partners. 

Climate Controversy

Similarly, the White House is allocating $3.4 billion to carbon capture and sequestration efforts. Chu says that as many as 10 projects could be commercialized within a decade and that prices would only rise 10-20 percent because of it. At the same time, the Secretary Chu has advocated for policies to limit carbon emissions, pointing to the multitude of natural disasters that have taken place and the high, uninsured costs of those events.

“The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has had a significant and likely role in climate change,” he says, adding that even China and India have accepted those findings.

Chu’s announcement is not a surprise and it comes just weeks after two other key energy-related players have said that they, too, will move on: Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Interior Secretary Ken Salizar. As to whom may replace Chu, some rumblings are centering on Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and former Google exec Dan Reicher.

Scholars are not often adept at politics. But Secretary Chu has learned the ropes, advocating for what he believes but within the confines of an administration that must find workable solutions. Chu, nevertheless, will leave Washington the same way in which entered it -- with a commitment to science and how such fundamentals can be used to advance new, clean energy technologies.