Energy Secretary Steven Chu Will Soon End His Experiment in Washington

The Nobel-winning physicist brought an empirical focus to the Department of Energy. But after struggling to solve the formulas behind Beltway politics, the star scientist will reportedly step down.

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As a Nobel-winning physicist, Steven Chu brought an empirical focus to the Department of Energy. But the star scientist—who will reportedly step down as Energy Secretary for Obama's second term—often struggled to solve the formulas behind Beltway politics. Bloomberg's Hans Nichols & Jim Snyder today cited two people familiar with the matter who say that an announcement could come as soon as this week, confirming previously reported expectations that Chu will leave his Cabinet position.

Before joining the Obama cabinet, Chu directed the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and taught at Stanford University. His contributions toward the discovery of laser cooling techniques (ways to trap atoms using light, basically) earned him a Nobel Prize in 1997 and wide respect amongst researchers. But Washington shot callers weren't always impressed by his egghead credentials. Chu was a vocal advocate of renewable energy projects, and his legacy in the federal government will always be tainted by the Solyndra scandal. Chu helped push to loan $535 million to the Californian solar panel company, even though its ledgers were shady and its financier, George Kaiser, had political ties to the Obama reelection campaign. When Solyndra went bankrupt, House Republicans brought Chu in for a thorough grilling. Department of Energy employees had to resign. The whole thing was a mess.

But, as an outcome-oriented technocrat, Chu stayed focussed on solar panels for the rest of his term. "It's very important we stay in this game," he reminded everyone when the dust cleared. And for every enemy he made in DC, Chu picked up a few admirers. "What he could have done, he did a great job with, which was implementing the stimulus bill and getting 30 some billion spent out of DOE, and doing it without fraud and doing it effectively," the Center for American Progress' director of clean energy investment Richard Caperton told Bloomberg reporters.

News of Chu's departure puts every environment-related position in Obama's Cabinet up for grabs. Seats currently vacant include Lisa Jackson's post at the Environmental Protection Agency and Ken Salazar's old gig as Interior Secretary. Tom Steyer, the head of major hedge fund Farallon Capital Management, is widely believed to be Obama's next choice for Energy Secretary. And if Steyer does get tapped, he'll bring the proportion of white maleness in the new Obama cabinet up even higher.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.