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Guessing The Next Energy Secretary


Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu is widely expected to leave the administration and there has already been widespread speculation about his possible replacement. The Washington PostNational JournalPoliticoGreentech Media, and E&E have all compiled lists of possible contenders. Nevertheless, while the focus has been on candidates with political stature who are generally supportive of clean energy, as I wrote earlier this week a clear understanding of the innovation process and an eye towards continuing reforming the DOE should be the primary prerequisites. Aggressively building off of the reforms made early in the President’s first term – ARPA-E, the Innovation Hubs, and Energy Frontier Research Centers to name a few – are desperately needed to make the DOE a “well-oiled engine for clean energy innovation.” With that in mind and assuming Secretary Chu doesn’t stay on for a second term, here are ITIF’s recommendations for the top job at the Department of Energy:

Arun Majumdar, who served as the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and Acting Undersecretary of Energy, would be far and away the best choice. He also worked under Stephen Chu as Associate Laboratory Director for Energy and Environment at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, making Majumdar a natural transition from Secretary Chu’s leadership. As head of ARPA-E, Majumdar was an extremely effective advocate for clean energy innovation and in fact as ITIF has pointed out before, “helped make [the agency] a leading force for energy innovation in the country, if not the leading force.” Majumdar’s experience spinning up ARPA-E and his all-star ability to advocate for clean energy innovation would be invaluable to moving DOE forward.

Susan Hockfield, former President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hockfield turned MIT into a hub for energy innovation, launching the $359 million MIT Energy Initiative in 2006 to accelerate transformational energy technology research and development. Like Majumdar and Secretary Chu, Hockfield is a scientist-by-training and has a deep appreciation for the positive role government can play in fostering innovation. In fact, she was a keynote speaker at the 2012 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, where she laid out a compelling clean energy innovation agenda for the nation:

First, universities and government should shake off their trepidations about working with both the incumbent and emerging energy industry. Second, the rest of DOE, and frankly the rest of government, should follow ARPA-E’s lead in defining competitive cost as central to the clean-tech innovation equation. Third, we should figure out how to use the scale of government energy consumption, especially through DOD, to provide test beds for important new technologies. Fourth, we should seize the opportunities of advanced manufacturing to help change the cost equation for new energy technologies. And fifth, we need to develop a range of financing models that will allow energy technologies to develop and thrive in the market.

Norman Augustine, former Chairman of Lockheed Martin and former Undersecretary of the Army. Like Hockfield, Augustine recognizes that innovation must be a priority for the DOE; in testimony before Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources earlier this year, he noted “the nation will need to depend more heavily on innovation; that is, utilize high quality research to create new knowledge, world-class engineering to convert that knowledge into new energy sources and delivery means, and enlightened entrepreneurship to translate those sources and delivery means into the marketplace.” He also has extensive experience in managing large organizations – in addition to his work at Lockheed Martin and the Department of Defense, he was also a CEO of the Martin Marietta Corporation, Chairman of the American Red Cross, and Chairman of the Defense Science Board. He is currently a member of the American Energy Innovation Council, of which any of its business leaders – particularly Augustine – would be well suited for position of Energy Secretary.

In 2008, the President brought in a new group of thought leaders into the Department of Energy, including Secretary Steven Chu, Arun Majumdar, and current Assistant Secretary for EERE David Danielson, that breathed fresh air into an often criticized DOE that is nonetheless central to spurring and facilitating the nations energy innovation ecosystem. In the four years since, the ecosystem is running better than before and beginning to seed new clean energy technologies, ideas and services in the market place. But more work needs to be done.  America needs a better innovation ecosystem to develop and commercialize the cheap, high-performance low-carbon energy technologies necessary to addressing climate change and energy security issues. In other words, 2008’s talent infusion cannot be a one-off experience and choosing the right person at the top is a key first step.

Originally posted at Forbes.

Image: Stephen Chu/

Matthew Stepp's picture

Thank Matthew for the Post!

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Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Dec 7, 2012 5:29 pm GMT

Thanks for the post Matthew. In all honesty I hope Steven Chu decides to stay on as Secretary of Energy. I believe he would be a difficult man to replace when it comes to keeping things progressing as they have been moving forward. I do think your order of prediction  based upon merit is good.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Dec 7, 2012 8:28 pm GMT

These are plausible suggestions. But it might be helpful to have someone with pertinent experience in commercial business and/or finance. (As opposed to Augustine's substantial experience in government contracting.) Especially if one recognizes that the test of effective innovation is successful commercialization. 

Lou Gerstner, Andy Grove, Eric Schmidt, and Meg Whitman are among the names that could be considered.

Matthew Stepp's picture
Matthew Stepp on Dec 7, 2012 8:57 pm GMT

Lewis - 

The problem with that is the energy industry is unlike any of the industries those folks have worked in. Individually, they all have the qualifications, but I don't think it's as simple as to say we "need pertinenent experience in commercial business." And it goes without saying that a lot of the folks working and directing daily policy at DOE have that commercial experience - so IMO it isn't as big of a gap to feel.

What do you think about Ashton Carter - another name that is popping up recently.

Matthew Stepp, ITIF

Matthew Stepp's picture
Matthew Stepp on Dec 7, 2012 8:58 pm GMT

I agree in a lot of ways, but I think it's clear that at some point in the first half of 2013, Dr. Chu is set to leave.  Though a lot can happen and it depends on how the political battles over filling the other Secretary slots that are about to open up go.

Matthew Stepp, ITIF

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Dec 7, 2012 11:35 pm GMT

Matt, Ashton Carter for SecDef makes sense. I'm not seeing relevance to DOE. Except, again, re the weapons program.

If you want to reorganize DOE to be a more effective engine for commercial innovation, I think it would help to have someone with relevant skills and experience -- not necessarily in energy but in technology + innovation + commercialization. The names I noted all have important skills and experience making innovation happen -- and not just in technology but in organization, management, marketing, etc. Gerstner, for instance, successfully turned around and transformed IBM when it was going down the tubes.

The Obama administration generally has been deficient compared with its predecessors in having people with substantial business experience in the cabinet, the White House, etc.: 

Since the mission of DOE from the outset -- aside from the weapons program -- has been to work cooperatively with the private sector to advance commercial energy development, the SecEnergy is a particularly apt post for a leader with private sector experience.

Yet the only secretary since DOE's creation with substantial business experience was Charles Duncan, who succeeded James Schlesinger during the Carter administration. Duncan had been something of an innovator in the beverage business, but arguably did not fit the mold of a high-tech leader.

Chu was considered something of a departure from the norm as the first scientist to be secretary. Appointing a high-tech industry leader to the job would be another innovative step.


Geoff Sherrington's picture
Geoff Sherrington on Dec 8, 2012 12:40 am GMT

The World does not need lapdog leaders who salivate at certain words like "clean" as in clean energy. Prudent leaders would weight the occasional use of alternatives as an insurance whose need is not yet strong, then get on with advancement of proven, major technology. That had been the usual way in Science and Enginering.

Be realistic. You build a hybrid car. So what does this do to the "clean" construction and maintenance of roads and bridges, the disposal of old "clean" vehicles, the supply of new materials for batteries, etc? It might even make the overall circumstances worse.

The next Chief should be selected for vision, persuasion and balance. The World is sick of slaves of the NGOs and weak people who seeek election by sucking up to trendy causes that lack hard science support.

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