Outgoing US Energy Secretary Steven Chu may be one of the most successful energy chiefs to head the agency. No, I’m not talking about his Nobel Prize for physics, which I’ve heard is harder to get than some of the other ones. Neither am I talking about how he managed to survive a congressional firestorm over the failed federal-loan recipient Solyndra. Nor his distinction as the longest-serving energy secretary in US history.
No, I am talking about Chu achieving the trifecta of celebrity comedy. Over the last four years, he scored two biggies, appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and on National Public Radio’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. And earlier this week, he made headlines in the king of satirical broadside, The Onion, for sleeping with a solar panel.
“Sources have reported that following a long night of carousing at a series of D.C. watering holes, Energy Secretary Steven Chu awoke Thursday morning to find himself sleeping next to a giant solar panel he had met the previous evening,” the story understated. “According to sources, Chu’s encounter with the crystalline-silicon solar receptor was his most regrettable dalliance since 2009, when an extended fling with a 90-foot wind turbine nearly ended his marriage.”
The Onion’s photo of Chu, lying forlornly in bed next to a half-revealed solar panel, wearing a white tank-top and his signature round glasses, quickly made the rounds among Washington energy reporters. (And while factually inaccurate — we assume — you can make your own conclusions on the story’s metaphorical veracity.)
Chu has achieved a minor level of fame at DOE headquarters for his dry sense of humor, and he posted a link to the Onion story on his Facebook page, with a classic Washington non-denial denial of the affair.
“I just want everyone to know that my decision not to serve a second term as Energy Secretary has absolutely nothing to do with the allegations made in this week’s edition of the Onion,” Chu wrote. “While I’m not going to confirm or deny the charges specifically, I will say that clean, renewable solar power is a growing source of US jobs and is becoming more and more affordable, so it’s no surprise that lots of Americans are falling in love with solar.”
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Chu has been an unconventional energy secretary. He made it a practice to ride his $5,000 Italian-made high-end Colnago racing bicycle to DOE headquarters from his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. (“Real bicyclists like hills,” he once said.) He climbed the seven flights of stairs to his office at DOE headquarters several times a day, abstaining from the elevator and, rumor has it, winding his security detail.
And nowhere else was he as unconventional as in his approach to policy at DOE. Reporters took turns asking Chu’s predecessor, Samuel Bodman, about oil imports and Saudi oil production when they cornered him after speeches. But in Chu’s first week in office, he tried to abdicate his role as oil-diplomat-in-chief.
“I feel I have been dumped into the deep end of the pool,” Chu said about a flurry of OPEC-related questions during one of his first sit-downs with reporters in 2009.
His focus would be on boosting the use of renewable power, such as solar and wind, and reducing dependency on oil, he said at the time.
“That is the major mission of the department and it’s what I have control over,” he said.
While he soon learned he had to discuss oil along with energy efficiency and renewable energy, Chu never lost his passion as an advocate for solutions to climate change. And even as the boom in natural gas and oil production has put the US on a path to possible energy independence at a scale unmatched by the promise of renewables, Chu still evangelizes about the importance of dealing with climate change.
And while Chu has alienated some Republicans in Congress with that passion, he has also attracted ardent supporters throughout the energy industry. At a meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners last week, Chu not only got one standing ovation, but two.