WASHINGTON--Energy Secretary nominee Steven Chu was greeted with warm approval from a congressional committee during his confirmation hearing Tuesday, at which he acknowledged the need to pursue nuclear and clean-coal energy but promoted energy efficiency as the best means of addressing the nation's energy challenges in the face of a dour economy.
"I feel very strongly what the American family does not want is to pay an increasing fraction of their budget on energy costs," Chu said before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "That we do the best we can on energy efficiency--that, in my mind, remains the lowest hanging fruit."
Working toward producing more efficient cars and tightly sealed homes will bring down energy consumption and costs, he said.
Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said Chu would be heading up the Energy Department at a "pivotal time in the department's history," noting that tens of billions of dollars in the upcoming stimulus package are likely to be devoted to energy programs.
He said that he would like the committee to vote on Chu's nomination later this week so the Nobel Prize-winning physicist could be confirmed as Energy Secretary by the entire senate on January 20, when President-elect Barack Obama takes office.
Chu would take responsibility of an increasingly important energy program at a time when funding will be sparse. Bingaman noted the lack of funding for a loan guarantee program set up by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Chu said that he would be able to manage the department efficiently. Since becoming director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004, he has been primarily known as a scientist, he said, but "I spent three quarters of my time paying attention to the operation side of the house."
Part of the Energy Department's $25 billion budget should go toward accelerating the development of consumer-friendly batteries for electric hybrid cars, Chu said.
"These first electric hybrid cars don't have the energy capacity and the battery lifetime we need," he said. "Let's push hard towards more fuel-efficient personal vehicles."
While the senators present endorsed Chu's enthusiasm for developing new energy technologies, many emphasized the need to put funds toward readily available energy sources like nuclear power.
"Isn't it important we accelerate this proven source of clean energy?" Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Al.) asked with respect to nuclear power.
"I'm supportive of the fact that the nuclear industry should be part of the mix," Chu said.
He said federal loan guarantee programs should be used to jump-start the nuclear industry while the nation develops a long-term plan for safe disposal of waste and researches ways to recycle waste in an economically viable and safe manner.
"The recycling issue is something we don't need a solution for today, or even 10 years from today," Chu said. "It's like coal--one doesn't have a hard moratorium on that while we search for ways to capture carbon safely."
Chu said the United States, India, China, and Russia will not turn their backs to coal, so it is critical to find ways to use it as cleanly as possible, a sentiment many senators agreed with.
"All of us understand we need to use coal differently in the future," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). "But I don't think anybody believes we're not going to use our most abundant resource."
Chu said the United States has an opportunity to develop clean-coal technologies for the rest of the world to use, and "if confirmed, I will work very hard to extensively develop these."