Even as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asks California lawmakers for more than $47 billion in new bond debt, the University of California itself is weighing "billions" in bond financing for new buildings, starting with more than $100 million in alternative energy and supercomputing facilities at Berkeley.

Topping the list of beneficiaries are scientists — especially Berkeley alternative energy researchers led by Nobel laureate physicist and Lawrence Berkeley lab director Steve Chu.

In less than a half-hour Wednesday, he raced from pitching the university's governing Board of Regents across San Francisco to the Presidio to plead his case to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. By his estimates, Chu made more than 50 such presentations last year.

His sales pitch is straightforward: Global warming is real, and the uncertainties are between "bad news and really bad news." But, Chu told regents Wednesday, "we can do something about this."

Just as early genetic tinkering sent corn yields soaring eightfold and took millions of acres of U.S. farmland out of production, Chu argues that more up-to-date biological techniques can multiply the biomass produced by grasses and trees, churning out more gallons of biofuels per acre for those unused lands.

Among those captivated are the governor, UC president Bob Dynes and several key regents.


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Schwarzenegger pledged $30 million in state bonds for Chu's Helios Project, a new, $130 million lab where scientists would team up on new biofuels and nanotech solar cells, plus another $40 million in bonds if Berkeley scientists win a competition hosted by energy giant BP LLC for a $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute.

For its part, the university would add another $30 million in bonds, if the regents approve.

"There's a golden ring out there right now for California, and we have to get it," said Dynes, himself a physicist who recruited Chu from Stanford. "We have the opportunity to be the world's leader for alternative energy, and that opportunity is now. The stars are aligned."

Chu signaled that regents also soon will be asked to help finance a new supercomputer center, to be known as the Computation Research and Theory Facility and replace a leased former bank building in downtown Oakland that now houses one of the nation's most powerful, unclassified, scientific computing centers. The new $90 million center would be 143,000 square feet of computer floor and office space.

Both the new bioenergy and supercomputing centers would be built on university land just outside the Berkeley lab fence, to foster open interaction between lab scientists, campus professors and students.

At the urging of incoming board chairman Richard Blum, UC officials have discovered that the university can dig deeper into bonds for new construction.

"One of the things we have learned over the last six months is this university has a lot of debt capacity, and this debt capacity needs to be used," Blum told the board.

He said "billions" of dollars are potentially available for construction financing.

"It's enough really to build anything reasonable that we want," Blum said in an interview.

The regents' new chairman endorsed the new buildings, saying he found Chu and award-winning lab synthetic biologist Jay Keasling to be " about as extraordinary a group of people as I have ever met."

"I don't think there's anything better that this university can do," Blum said.