Speaking in Goleta, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu on March 5 defended the Obama administration’s decision to oppose a long-term nuclear waste storage site in Nevada and urged lawmakers to avoid protectionism in funding renewable energy.
A day after the Obama administration roiled the nuclear power industry by seeking to terminate a plan to bury U.S. nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Chu, who had once supported the idea, said there are now “better options” for storing the radioactive material.
Chu said the federal government should cut the time it takes to approve new nuclear power plants to help reduce the carbon footprint of U.S. energy. His bullish stance on nuclear power comes as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is seeking federal approval to keep its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo running until 2045.
“Nuclear is clean base-load power,” Chu said at the Bacara Resort & Spa, speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics conference. “The designs are becoming more economical.”
Chu also sought to soothe uproar over a proposed wind energy farm in West Texas that could involve a Chinese firm. Though the farm hasn’t applied for a permit yet, congressional lawmakers have raised concerns that U.S. stimulus money could go to an economic rival.
Chu said that big renewable energy installations by foreign firms still create U.S. jobs. Projects shouldn’t be excluded from federal aid just because a small portion of their total dollar value ends up overseas, he said.
“Yes, we’re sensitive to that, but don’t do something hasty,” Chu said. “There are unintended consequences when you come out and say, ‘You have to buy American.’ You do not want to stop these projects.”
Under Chu, the Department of Energy has pumped $19 million in research money into the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Institute for Energy Efficiency. But Chu said the U.S. government will have to put a price on carbon to spur the scale of funding that’s needed to solve the country’s energy needs.
“You put a signal out that there will be a cap on carbon and that that cap will ratchet down,” Chu said. “We need that long-term signal. That’s what’s going to drive investments.”
Others speaking at the conference, which focused on business and environmental matters, said big intuitions are already preparing for carbon caps.
“We’ve been using a price of carbon in our lending decisions for several years now,” said Richard Cohen, managing director of the environmental strategic investments group at Bank of America. He said it’s “critically important” that the price be market-based “to drive a level playing field where you can make rational decisions about what things cost.”
Chu said the U.S. must act quickly to avoid being upstaged by China and other emerging players who are developing new energy technologies.
“China has to carbon-neutralize its energy, and they’re moving very aggressively,” Chu said. “We can still be the leader in this industrial revolution. But time is running out, and the train is leaving the station.”