Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced his resignation today, marking the end of a tumultuous tenure atop the department during which he won plaudits for a reinvigorated effort to promote clean energy and address climate change but was panned for shortfalls in that same push, notably the bankruptcy of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra.
Chu announced his departure in a nearly 3,800-word letter to Department of Energy employees, touting accomplishments including the launch of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a doubling of wind and solar energy in the last four years, and administration of the loan guarantee and other stimulus clean energy programs.
"Serving as Secretary of Energy during such a momentous and important time has been incredibly demanding but enormously rewarding," he wrote. "I've been continually impressed by the talent and commitment of the men and women of this Department."
Chu said he told the president in November that he and his wife, Jean, would be returning to California, where he plans to resume his career in academia; before becoming Energy secretary in 2009, Chu was director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Chu did not indicate an exact departure date but said he would remain at DOE at least through the end of February and may stay beyond that if a successor has not yet been confirmed.
President Obama in a statement praised the Nobel Prize-winning physicist for bringing to DOE "a unique understanding of both the urgent challenge presented by climate change and the tremendous opportunity that clean energy represents for our economy."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, praised the dramatic growth in natural gas production that occurred during Chu's tenure.
"As President Obama looks at potential successors, I hope he keeps in mind the importance of encouraging innovation in new energy technologies, safeguarding taxpayer dollars and continuing the manufacturing revival spurred by stable natural gas supplies," Wyden said in a statement.
Chu's departure comes on the heels of recently announced resignations by U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, leaving several holes to be filled in Obama's energy and environment team.
A successor has yet to be named, but leading candidates include former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan (D), former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).
Environmentalists and clean energy proponents praised Chu for his efforts to promote the development of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources during his four years at DOE, including overseeing programs created by the economic stimulus to boost those efforts and supporting the launch of ARPA-E, which backed high-risk, potentially high-reward research.
"Steven Chu should be remembered as the 'Secretary of Clean Energy,'" Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy for the Center for American Progress, said in an email, praising the growth in renewable energy, ARPA-E's launch and DOE's SunShot program aimed at reducing the cost of solar power.
Jim Lyons, director of renewable energy at Defenders of Wildlife, said Chu's successor will have a high bar to clear in building on his tenure.
"I think what Secretary Chu did, which was no surprise given that he's a Nobel Prize winner in research and energy, I think he really advanced efforts to develop the new tools and tech that are going to set the stage for building a clean energy future," Lyons said in an interview.
Chu, who was new to the rough-and-tumble world of Washington politics, came in for intense criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill over some notable failures that received money through the stimulus loan guarantee program. Defunct solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which received a $535 million loan guarantee, became largely synonymous in the eyes of most Republicans with the administration's broader efforts to promote clean energy.
Conservatives were quick to bid Chu good riddance.
"Secretary Chu will long be remembered for his administration of the Solyndra loan program, record high gas prices, and his role as loyal foot soldier in the Obama administration's war on affordable, reliable energy," said Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for the American Energy Alliance. "America never needed Steven Chu at the Energy Department, and it's not clear that we ever needed the department at all."
DOE's defenders argue that Solyndra was just one glitch in a larger program that backed many successful companies, and that perfection should not be expected when the goal is to develop fledgling technology.
"This is the politics of Washington," Lyons said. "The next person, I think, needs to make clear why the type of investments in projects like Solyndra are made -- the objective to try and advance technology to develop the prototypes."