Superweeds, air caves and the future of energy

Lawrence Berkeley labs chief says global warming may not be a 100 percent given but the potential consequences mean we have to act regardless.

Steve Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, invariably leaves audiences with two impressions: Science is absolutely fascinating, and humanity is dancing on the precipice of oblivion.

Chu, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997 for coming up with a way to trap atoms with laser light, took a leave of absence from his job as a Stanford University professor to head one of the premier research organizations for the federal government (the Berkeley lab is operated by the University of California for the Department of Energy). He's directing the lab to come up with better sources of energy and ways to conserve it.

One of the more promising solutions lies in the genetic code, he says. In coming years, scientists might be able to breed, or even create, plants that convert more of the energy from the sun into usable energy. Solar also shows strong promise. Chu, who will speak at U.C. Berkeley this week during a seminar on climate change, sat down with CNET recently to talk about alternative energy and other topics. If we don't address the energy situation soon, he warns, war, pollution and economic hardship could be the result.

Q: Back in 2004, you left a fairly good position at a university with a lot of money to head up a federal bureaucracy. It's not a career choice a lot of people would make. Give us the backstory on that.
Chu: Well, it was a complicated thing. I think I was getting to a point in my life where I figured I had one-third of my career left. When I was in Stanford, I began to think about the energy problem. I was also increasingly concerned about the University of California and especially Berkeley, and that it was in danger of slipping. My department (physics) when I was there as a graduate student and in post doc was undisputedly the No. 1 department in the world. It's not anymore. It's still up there, but as the private universities get richer, it has become harder. Berkeley for at least a half a century was the standard bearer for excellence in public institutions. And if it slips, I think all the public institutions in the United States would find it harder.

If the temperatures go up by 3 or 5 degrees centigrade in the Midwest, then the agriculture machine in the Midwest is going to be threatened.
Alternative energy is not a completely new direction for the lab, but it seems to be emphasized a lot more than it was before.
Chu: That's right. In the early to mid '70s, a physics professor named Art Rosenfeld during the last oil crisis said, "I'm leaving high-energy physics and going to see what I can to do for the energy problem." He concluded that the lowest-hanging fruit was on the demand (consumption) side. He really personally worked a lot of miracles and was, I would say, a major factor (in curbing energy demand). From the middle '70s to now, electricity use in California has remained relatively constant even though in the rest of the United States it went up by about 50 percent. There is still a factor of two or more to be had without really dramatically altering lifestyle, just by using energy more wisely. Roughly 35 percent of the energy the United States uses is in buildings and houses. Of that, only a quarter is heating. The rest is all just lighting and air conditioning. We can design buildings much more sensibly--so they don't absorb as much heat, so that they use energy more efficiently.

On the conservation side, do we need to develop new technologies or does the technology already exist and we need to popularize it?
Chu: Both. Most of it is sensible stuff. With south-facing windows and west-facing windows you put overhanging eaves so there are shadows. Use white instead of black (on the outside of buildings)--that alone can cut air conditioning costs. We recently helped Shanghai build an office building that saved a factor of two as compared with other recently built buildings.

Do you think government and potential consumers are sincere about curbing their energy use or finding new forms of energy? Or do you fear that a lot of what is going on is a temporary reaction to the spike in oil prices?
Chu: It's a temporary reaction, but there is something else. Increasingly, people are beginning to believe the warning that's been around the last 20 years about climate change. I'll be the first to admit that 20 years ago the evidence was not very compelling. But each year it's getting more and more compelling. It is roughly analogous to the 1950s, when cigarette smoking really was hazardous, and by the '70s and '80s it was becoming so painfully obvious that the industrial interests could no longer prevent labels and campaigns to encourage people to stop smoking. We've been 20 years with this. The first 10 years it wasn't as compelling, but in each year we've learned more, and unfortunately none of it seems to be good news.

Is there still a debate in the scientific community over global warming?
Chu: The fact that the globe has been warming up for the last 150 years is just a measurement, and I'm not sure how you debate a measurement. Let me be as fair as I can to the naysayers. In the last half million to million years, we've gone through cycles of warmth and cold. You can even go further back--for hundreds of millions of years, we have gone through periods where the globe was much warmer than it is today with the carbon dioxide levels much higher. Do I think all life will be wiped out on the Earth? No. I think humans might pay a penalty. Even before poor polar bears die, there is economic upheaval. This is not known for certain--and in fact it's a big if; it's not compelling yet for sure--but suppose the ocean conveyor belt gets disrupted because of the decrease of the salinity in the Atlantic. The conveyor belt depends on upwelling of warm water and the sinking of cold water, and as it gets fresher the density changes. The Gulf Stream could get disrupted.

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