U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said New Mexico has the intellectual and natural resources to be an alternative-energy powerhouse.

Chu hosted a town hall meeting at UNM’s School of Engineering to discuss the role of alternative energy in the future of America and the state of New Mexico. Chu praised UNM’s ability to create new jobs in tough economic times.

“We are in a recession and yet UNM is still speeding out new businesses,” he said. “I think this is because you have both great natural resources … and because you have the intellectual leadership here needed to succeed.”

Following a meeting with top University officials, including UNM President David Schmidly, Chu fielded questions from UNM students in topics ranging from oil dependency to solar power. In a private interview with the Daily Lobo, Chu spoke about the role of UNM in energy development.

“New Mexico has tremendous energy resources, particularly solar, and it also has a lot of the pieces that can help develop solar technology,” he said. “It’s going to be a race to develop those technologies so we can invent and build things and ship them around the world.”

Chu said the role of UNM in this energy development is crucial.
“We have several great laboratories (including) Sandia and Los Alamos, and of course the University will be partnering with those labs. Those institutions will be part of the intellectual fabric of the research enterprise and development of those technologies.”

Chu addressed the comments President Barack Obama made in his State of the Union address Tuesday about hydraulic fracturing, a controversial drilling method which some environmentalists worry could pollute water sources near drilling sites.

“I think, as the president said, and as many state regulators are doing, there should be a requirement for companies doing hydraulic fracturing to list (the chemicals they are using in fracturing process),” he said. “Most of the companies are doing this and 95 percent of them see no problem with doing this. It’s the idea that we can and should have regulations to guide the companies.”

Chu said nuclear power will continue to play a role in U.S. energy policy, despite safety concerns brought on by an explosion at the Fukushima reactor in Japan following an earthquake along the country’s coast in March. He said modern reactors are safer because there a smaller chance of failure or damage to the facility, or harm to citizens. He said they are a good alternative to fossil fuels.

“The nuclear reactors are safe, but we are going to look at what happened in Japan to make them even safer,” he said. “In terms of future nuclear plants, the ones being built and designed today are considerably better in many respects.” Prior to the town hall, Chu spoke with students from the Arizona State University and UNM Solar Decathlon team. The team will compete with 19 other teams from colleges and universities across the U.S. and from around the world in a two-year project building solar-powered, highly energy-efficient homes in Irvine, Calif. The project is part of an effort to increase awareness and research in the field of alternative energy.

Assistant professor of Architecture and Planning Kristina Yu, who works with the team, said the decathlon gives students hands-on experience that laboratory and classroom settings cannot.

“In a lab environment, you are working by yourself or in a small group and in the real world you need to work with lots of people,” she said. “Students learn things about communication and … administration they would never have otherwise been exposed to.”

Steven Chu received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for his work in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light. Prior to his appointment as energy secretary, he served as a professor of physics and biology at the University of California, Berkeley.