Chu Asks Energy Maverick to Plug a Big Hole in the Department

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

From Tuesday’s The Hill:

In a memo to staff Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that Acting Under Secretary of Energy Cathy Zoi will leave the agency next month to “pursue a new opportunity in the private sector in California.” Chu's chief of staff is also leaving, the latest of several senior officials to depart since late last year (see here and here).

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Chu said Arun Majumdar, who heads the department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, will fill Zoi’s shoes while continuing to run ARPA-E, which funds so-called "high-risk, high-reward" projects to develop cutting-edge energy sources.

Zoi herself had been filling in for Kristina Johnson, who left in October after only 17 months on the job. Majumdar is being asked to do both jobs while the Obama Administration looks for a permanent replacement, although that person will then need to be confirmed by the Senate, a process that often takes months.

Zoi was also doing double duty as head of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, one of several programs in the under secretary’s portfolio. So her departure led Chu to ask Henry Kelly to move up from being Zoi’s deputy to taking her job on an acting basis. Kelly was president of the Federation of American Scientists before joining the Department of Energy (DOE) in 2009 after Chu became secretary.

Majumdar is a favorite of Chu’s, having worked for him when Chu ran the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. So the hard-driving energy secretary may be relying on a trusted deputy to smooth things over while he refills the ranks of the department.

Even though Majumdar will be overseeing a much bigger agenda as energy under secretary, he will need to spend much of his time guiding ARPA-E, a 2-year-old agency with a strong reputation that nonetheless faces tough times. Last year, a report by a science advisory council to the White House gave it high marks, adding that the department should be “extending to all DOE energy programs the review, contracting, funding, and organizational reforms implemented successfully by Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy.”

But last week, the House of Representatives nearly voted to zero out its budget for this fiscal year, settling on $50 million in the so-called continuing resolution for the rest of 2011. That figure is far below the $550 million that President Barack Obama has requested for ARPA-E in 2012. The Senate will be taking up the 2011 funding resolution next week.

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