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Q&A: Energy Secretary Steven Chu on powering NY and the nation

Just a few weeks after President Obama visited the Capital Region, an important member of his cabinet was also in town.

Energy Secretary, and Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Steven Chu was in the area to tour the GE Global Research center outside of Schenectady. He also received an honorary degree from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

During his visit, Chu sat down with New York NOW to talk about national energy policy, and some of the issues facing New York - like the future of hydrofracking and nuclear power.

*Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: One of the biggest energy issues we’re having here in New York is around natural gas, and specifically hydraulic fracturing. President Obama has said he’s supportive of this, but it’s a hugely controversial issue here. What would you say to the people who are really concerned about the environmental impacts of natural gas drilling?

A: I think the president said he’s supportive of it as long as it’s developed in an environmentally responsible way. He charged me to form a subcommittee with an advisory group to see if one can actually develop this resource so that you greatly mitigate the risks of any pollution to water tables to surrounding areas. 

And the conclusion of this subcommittee is that ‘Yes, it’s possible to do those things,’ of course it’s also possible not to. 

We understand the concerns of all the citizens, not only of New York, Pennsylvania, but also around the country and around the world. It’s a dual role: there’s a regulatory role, an inspection role, and a responsibility of industry to make sure that if and when you develop it, it’s done in a completely environmentally responsible way.

Q: Another energy controversy we have here is nuclear power. We have 17 million people who live within a 50 mile radius of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. There’s really no realistic evacuation plan to speak of, and given what happened last year in Japan, how do you think we can pursue nuclear power safely?

A: Like fracking, these are local issues that the citizens of New York will have to sort through. Certainly when Indian Point was first built, it didn’t have the high population. In other areas of the United States, where it’s not as closely associated with densely populated areas, there’s less of a risk. But we are working very hard to ensure that the nuclear reactors we do have in the United States will be operated in a very safe way.

On the flip side of this, for the next generation of reactors, the goal is to make them passively safe.

What that means is if you lose control of the reactor - the electricity, the water supply, everything - it will just glide to a gentle stop without any release of radiation and without the threat of meltdown. So that’s the goal of the next generation, but in the meantime, the current generation, we constantly improve the safety of those reactors.

Q: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will to do much about climate change in Washington. What are you doing about it?

A: Well, there is. I think the Department of Energy and the Obama administration are doing what they can.

There are a lot of tools open to us. So one of the really good news stories is that clean energy - we’re talking about renewable energy in particular - the price is coming down dramatically. We think that within a decade, a decade and a half, the cost of new electricity being generated by wind and probably solar will be competitive with the cost of any new form of energy, whether it is natural gas or any other. Even with natural gas at very low gas prices.

So the good news is that it’s not a question of clean energy at higher cost, or fossil energy. It’s really a question of, this is coming, the technology is developing, and how do we begin to integrate that into our electrical system.

Q: Despite the fact that there are so many renewable alternatives, the administration is poised to allow offshore drilling in the Alaskan arctic, which has a lot of people concerned given what happened with BP in the Gulf two years ago. Do you think that’s a good idea?

A: Certainly there are risks in anything you do. One of the things that one has to recognize is that in the near-term future, we’re going to need to develop fossil resources as we begin to transition to clean, renewable energy. Right now, we don’t have the infrastructure, nor actually the technologies that can go to 100 percent renewable energy within a decade or two, because we would need a much different transmission distribution system. We would need some energy storage, and we would need to be able to transport that electricity over longer distances.

But it’s very clear that this is becoming not only technically feasible, it’s becoming economically a better and better choice. But we still will need to make this transition.

As for natural gas, every form of energy has people who are against it.

People are against solar farms in the desert, they’re against wind turbines, they’re against hydro. But realistically, the president has to make these decisions where you have to say, ‘OK, here’s where we want to go.’ This technology is going there. That’s good news. We, the United States, want to be a leader in the development of these fabulous technologies so not only can we use it at home, but we can sell it abroad.

That’s the primary focus of the Department of Energy. We focus on making sure that those technologies are developed and demonstrated and can be deployed.

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