Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who oversaw expanded federal support for low-carbon energy and defended it against GOP attacks, announced Friday that he is stepping down.
Chu, in a letter to Energy Department employees, said he would remain with the department at least until the end of February, and perhaps beyond "so that I can leave the Department in the hands of the new Secretary."
"Serving the country as Secretary of Energy, and working alongside such an extraordinary team of people at the Department, has been the greatest privilege of my life. While the job has had many challenges, it has been an exciting time for the Department, the country, and for me personally," he wrote.
While he didn’t announce specific plans, Chu said he’s like to return to academic life and move back to the West Coast.
“While I will always remain dedicated to the missions of the Department, I informed the President of my decision a few days after the election that Jean and I were eager to return to California. I would like to return to an academic life of teaching and research, but will still work to advance the missions that we have been working on together for the last four years,” Chu writes.
President Obama thanked Chu in a statement Friday and said the outgoing secretary “brought to the Energy Department a unique understanding of both the urgent challenge presented by climate change and the tremendous opportunity that clean energy represents for our economy.”
“And during his time as Secretary, Steve helped my Administration move America towards real energy independence. Over the past four years, we have doubled the use of renewable energy, dramatically reduced our dependence on foreign oil, and put our country on a path to win the global race for clean energy jobs,” Obama said.
The Nobel Prize-wining physicist took the Energy Department’s (DOE) helm shortly before the agency received $35 billion under the 2009 stimulus law.
The 64-year-old Chu, with White House support, backed a larger federal role in R&D and commercialization of renewable, energy efficiency and battery technologies.
But part of the effort — grants and loans to help specific green-energy companies take flight — brought big political headaches for Chu and Obama when a handful of them failed or struggled.
Chu’s departure has been widely expected and is part of a larger turnover of Obama’s energy and environment team.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced in late December that she is leaving after Obama’s mid-February State of the Union speech, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will leave by the end of March.
The long list of potential nominees to replace Chu includes former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.); former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman; and Sue Tierney, a managing principal at the Analysis Group who was DOE’s assistant secretary for policy under former President Clinton.
Others include former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D); Center for American Progress founder John Podesta, who was Clinton’s chief of staff; and Stanford University’s Dan Reicher, who formerly headed climate and energy initiatives for Google and served on Obama’s transition team.
Whoever replaces Chu will face a number of challenges running the sprawling department at a time of fiscal pressure and budget battles.
Its missions range from overseeing the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile to managing strategic petroleum reserves to financing R&D into alternative energy and other sciences.
For instance, DOE is facing competing political pressures as it weighs a slew of industry applications to export liquefied natural gas.
Chu, for his part, arrived at DOE with scientific heft but scant political experience as the White House sought to jumpstart the green-energy sector and tackle climate change.
Chu is the son of Chinese immigrants who was focused heavily on green energy as director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory when Obama picked him for DOE.
He worked to overhaul DOE’s R&D programs.
Chu has frequently touted the model of the former AT&T Bell Laboratories — where his work in the mid-1980s would yield his 1997 Nobel Prize — for incubating and developing ideas.
Under Chu, DOE has launched various “energy innovation hubs,” or research centers, that focus on batteries and energy storage, advanced nuclear reactors and several other topics.
Chu also focused on two programs that were authorized before his arrival but really got rolling under the current administration.
One was the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds so-called high-risk, high-reward research into breakthrough technologies. The agency was created in 2007 legislation but did not receive funding until 2009.
The other was the green technology loan-guarantee program, which had not finalized support for any companies before Chu’s arrival.
It was created in a bipartisan 2005 energy law, and modified and funded through the 2009 stimulus, which ultimately provided support for Solyndra and many other power generation and manufacturing projects.
The demise of Solyndra and some other companies that received federal loans or grants — such as Abound Solar and battery maker A123 Systems — threw DOE on the defensive and fueled GOP arguments that the White House green-energy agenda has been a failure.
A House GOP probe of Solyndra, a company that Obama visited personally in 2010, brought Chu into high-profile collisions with lawmakers and unearthed information that’s politically embarrassing for the White House.
A White House-commissioned outside review completed in early 2012 called for several reforms to improve management of the loan program.
But the congressional Solyndra inquiry did not substantiate Republican allegations that federal backing for the California company was a political payoff for a wealthy campaign donation bundler for Obama.
Administration officials say the woes of a few companies should not obscure the wider successes of the loan program, which has backed more than two-dozen power-generation, manufacturing and other projects. More broadly, they frequently point out that U.S. renewable energy generation has risen sharply on their watch.
However, the green-energy push that the Obama administration launched in 2009 has had its share of stumbles.
Chu on Thursday acknowledged that the administration may not meet its goal of having one million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.
Throughout his tenure, Chu has warned often that the U.S. will cede growing green-technology markets to China and other nations absent muscular federal policies to nurture and support those industries.
Chu also played a role that few could have predicted.
He lent scientific expertise to the fraught, months-long effort to contain BP’s runaway Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which spewed several million barrels of oil after blowing out in April of 2010.
Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach’s book about the crisis, A Hole At The Bottom Of The Sea, recounted the arrival of the government’s “alpha scientist” at BP’s Houston office in May of 2010.
Chu, who has been a professor at Stanford University and the University of California, won unanimous Senate confirmation in January of 2009.
He used the DOE perch to call for stronger action to fight climate change, including efforts to impose costs on carbon emissions that have stalled in Congress.
The outgoing secretary has been especially enthusiastic about solar technologies that he likes to point out are marching toward cost competitiveness with fossil fuels.
In 2011, Chu joked that addressing pressing energy and climate-change problems led to his “downward spiral from professor to administrator to government bureaucrat.”
—Justin Sink contributed.
This post was last updated at 12:56 p.m.