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US energy head to take agency back to its roots

WASHINGTON -- The next head of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is likely to guide the agency through a fundamental shift: easing up on a push to commercialize renewable energy and instead focusing on the surprising domestic oil and gas boom and management of U.S. nuclear security.

U.S. President Barack Obama is widely believed to be considering candidates to replace Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who managed an ill-fated US$40 billion effort to promote the green economy with loans and grants to solar, wind and biofuel companies.

The program, part of the 2009 economic stimulus bill, suffered a public relations nightmare when solar panel maker Solyndra and battery manufacturer A123 declared bankruptcy last year after receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. backed financial assistance.

“The four years under Chu were the least typical of the entire DOE,” said Paul Bledsoe, an independent energy consultant. The agency was formed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 in response to high oil prices after the Arab oil embargo.

“They had this huge amount of money to push out the door, which became not only a priority but a challenge to spend wisely,” said Bledsoe, a former White House aide to Bill Clinton.

The focus at the DOE in the years ahead is likely to return to where about two-thirds of its budget goes: security of nuclear weapons, reactors and waste.

“DOE policy is going back to a business-as-usual situation where, essentially, military nuclear spending tail-wags the energy policy dog,” said Robert Alvarez, of the Institute for Policy Studies who was a senior DOE official in the 1990s.

The agency's renewable energy initiatives will permanently move back to research and development and away from commercialization, said Bledsoe.

Names Being Shopped

DOE sources and analysts at think tanks in Washington said an announcement from Chu to step down could come any day, with a replacement to be named within weeks, possibly after the Jan. 21 inauguration.

The administration would not officially comment on whether Chu will step down. None of the potential candidates for the job commented either.

Two of those thought to be on the short-list have deep experience on nuclear issues.

Christine Gregoire, the outgoing governor of Washington state, has had a long career working with the federal government to clean up the nuclear waste mess at the federal Hanford Site in her state.

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