A Pep Talk on Energy Innovation

In what might prove to be his last public appearance as energy secretary, Steven Chu delivered a pep talk of sorts on Wednesday to hundreds of entrepreneurs, researchers and others at the ARPA-E conference on energy innovation in suburban Maryland.


Steven Chu, the nation’s outgoing energy secretary.Credit European Pressphoto Agency

Toward the outset, Dr. Chu, a key creator of ARPA-E, which stands for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, ticked off a list of historical predictions about new technology that turned out to be wrong.

Among them was one by the head of the British post office in 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell received a patent on the telephone. “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not,” the postal official reportedly said. “We have plenty of messenger boys.’’

Dr. Chu declared that entrepreneurs, engineers, bankers and others would have to push hard for new technologies, even if the goals seem highly ambitious. For now, he noted, many in those ranks have opted not to devote a lot of money to technology that could limit emissions of climate-changing gases.

“That is a false choice,’’ Dr. Chu said. The goal should rather be to strive for for innovation, like an electric car that is cost-competitive with a gasoline model, or a better way to make electricity, he said.

He quoted the old aphorism that the Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, but because something better was available.

Earlier Wednesday morning, the audience heard from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who said said he was tempted to talk about his research into “near isothermal compressed air energy storage.’’ He then paused, and the audience waited with apparent interest.

“I thought that was funny, guys,’’ Mr. Bloomberg said.

The audience, many of whose members are normally eager to hear about all such research, chuckled and then listened to the mayor’s presentation on New York City’s efforts to…

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