Steven Chu, who has headed the Department of Energy since January 2009, has decided to step down, according to a report by Bloomberg that cites people close to the matter.
Chu's exit would leave leaderless the three top departments that deal with energy policy, with Lisa P. Jackson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar having already announced their plans for departure.
Chu's tenure at the DOE was marked perhaps most significantly by a stimulus-funded spending spree that concentrated on smart grid technology, renewable energy projects and an active federal loan guarantee program for upstart technology companies.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 put the DOE in charge of more than $38 billion — or about three-fourths more than its usual budget — to spend on promoting "green jobs," building smarter infrastructure and fostering sustainable power generation.
The government's backing of promising new companies, however, backfired in the cases of solar energy firm Solyndra and battery maker A123 Systems.
After receiving about $500 million in federal subsidies, Solyndra filed for bankruptcy in September 2011 and laid off each of its 1,100 employees following a plummet in the price of silicon. A123 Systems filed for bankruptcy, was sold to Chinese interests and lost the remainder of its $249 million federal loan.
In testimony he gave at a House of Representatives subcommittee, Chu said the decision to fund Solyndra was a calculated risk that was based on good analysis — a necessary part of building a new clean energy economy. Republicans charged Chu and the Obama administration of cronyism and incompetence.
According to recent information released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, renewable energy sources now account for 15.40 percent of the generation mix in the U.S. In fact, biomass, geothermal, solar, water, wind energy accounted for 49.10 percent of all new domestic electrical generating capacity installed in the twelve months of 2012 for a total of 12,956 MW.
After Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident, Chu said he believed the U.S. federal government should continue to support nuclear energy as a source of emissions-free energy.
Chu is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist specializing in physics and molecular and cellular biology. Before taking his job in President Barack Obama's cabinet, Chu directed the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and taught at Stanford University.