According to reports, Steven Chu was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics jointly with compatriot William D Phillips and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji of France for “developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light”. Chu is now better known as US President Barack Obama’s former energy secretary, a post he resigned from in April to return to Stanford University. An advocate of sustainable development and renewable energy, Chu speaks to Narayani Ganesh on the sidelines of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings with young researchers, 22 of who are from India. Excerpts:
What kind of solar energy business model would you suggest for India?
Solar energy being too expensive is not something one has to worry about. On a global scale, the Chinesemade solar panels are cheaper but the difference is due to import duties pricing, shipping charges, taxes, licensing fee and so on. In a context where international prices are coming down and the technology is getting better and more reliable, you have to be concerned about installation cost and licensing fee. In the US, it also depends on where you are located. For example the southern parts get more sunshine and in 10 years, you could get solar power generated at 8 cents an hour and that is not expensive.
Won’t the utility companies — what we call electricity boards — be up in arms over consumers generating their own electricity on their rooftops?
In order for utility companies to be part of the solution you have to make them part of the business. It means if you have rooftop space at home, you can hire someone to install the panels from the utility company. In the US more and more solar projects are done this way — a company says you don’t have to pay for anything; just pay for the electricity. Have a contract for five or ten years at a certain rate (about the same as normal electricity costs) — you don’t have to bear the capital costs nor worry about maintenance. If utility companies are part of business, it would be good as they can borrow money at lower rates. It is a new business, a good business where they can make money.
What about storing solar energy?
As the technology gets better, energy storage too is possible, in batteries in your home. It is inexpensive — in 15 years maximum you can have storage inside home where it does not get up to 40 degrees Celsius. Utility companies, if they have to build a building to hold all batteries, will have to bear high costs. All they need is space. Which means they can offer you electricity at lower cost if they have local storage. So the consumer does not have to worry about inflation or equipment but just pay for the electricity. That is the business model I have been talking about to electrical companies this past year. If they know they can make money from solar energy generation on someone’s roof, they would be most interested. And with batteries in homes, you would not have to worry about blackouts.
You gave up your post as Obama’s energy secretary. Do you think scientists should stay away from politics?
I neither like nor dislike politics. It’s just that I needed to get back to my research as a practicing scientist.
Obama has said he is concerned about climate change. But the US has a poor green track record…
He is certainly concerned, but the Congress has to pass the laws. We do need to change agricultural practices, reduce carbon emissions and ocean acidification. We need another green revolution but without the drawbacks of pesticides. High nutrition is important and to achieve that, we could explore safe GM food. My dream is to make renewable more affordable.