Dr. Steven Chu, head of the US Department of Energy, gave an information-packed, 50-minute speech at the World Renewable Energy Forum in Denver on Wednesday. Speaking to a crowd of renewable energy leaders, Dr. Chu patted the industry on its head but didn’t have many bones to feed a hungry audience. The talk felt more like a college lecture than a political stump speech, with the energy secretary discussing the economics of renewable energy without addressing the cost of carbon.

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Chu started off by saying that global warming is like eating an extra slice of cheesecake a day — in time, undesirable changes will become very evident. Explaining how predictions of rising ocean levels have been shown to be too low by a factor of 3-6 times, he made the case that climate science is indeed complex.

After launching into an overview of climatology, hydrology and the complexities of climate change, Chu then spent most of his remaining time focusing on the positive. We can do something about climate change, Chu told the crowd, and the costs of renewable energy are coming down rapidly. Chu pointed out that last year the world has invested more in renewable energy sources than fossil fuels for the first time, and he expects renewables to cost roughly the same as traditional fuels within the next decade.

With the aid of several charts, Dr. Chu presented some data on renewable energy markets and their potential. He would like the total cost of to be solar $1 a watt installed by 2020 as a part of the Sunshot goal. It makes us wonder why the government is focusing on the cost instead of actual implementation of renewable energy. Chu also mentioned that the DoE is focusing its research on transistors that can switch 1mW of power, energy storage using compressed gas, water pumped storage, and 1mW district energy storage at the end of the power line as core goals. For biofuels, he wants to focus on improving the harvesting of woody fuels, and for solar he wants to make sure the tax credit is extended.

Chu also wants to broaden the pool of investors for solar and develop conglomerations rather than one-off projects to diversify risk. By taking a market-first approach and ignoring global warming and carbon costs, Chu is essentially taking the opposite approach of opening speaker Santiago Seage, CEO of  Abengoa Solar, who argued that direct government involvement in setting a real cost for carbon is vital to make renewables scale and to be financially viable for the foreseeable future.

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Photos © Andrew Michler for Inhabitat