U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a well-known figure in Silicon Valley, announced Friday that he is stepping down from President Barack Obama's Cabinet and is "eager to return to California" and an academic life of teaching and research.

With Chu's departure, which had been expected for some time, Washington will lose its most prominent geek. A vocal advocate of clean technology and nuclear power, Chu strongly represented the role of science in combating global climate change.

But Chu's tenure was not without controversy. The Energy Department's support of Solyndra, the Fremont solar manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy, became a political lightning rod and the poster child for the failings of federal stimulus funds. Chu, a researcher and academic by training, faced tough questions during high-profile Solyndra hearings held by House Republicans.

In Silicon Valley, however, many credited Chu, a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics who previously ran the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, with bringing science back to the forefront after years of neglect during the George W. Bush administration. Chu did not say if he would be returning to UC Berkeley.

"The fact that science matters again is one of Chu's biggest accomplishments," said Steve Vassallo, a partner at Foundation Capital in Menlo Park. "He elevated science and technology and the importance of doing the math. As a technologist and engineer, that's great. Chalk one up for the nerds."

In a lengthy farewell letter to department employees, Chu stressed that he has been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., who urged America to judge people "by the content of their character."


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"In the scientific world, people are judged by the content of their ideas," wrote Chu. "Advances are made with new insights, but the final arbitrator of any point of view are experiments that seek the unbiased truth, not information cherry-picked to support a particular point of view."

When Congress passed the landmark stimulus bill in 2009, more than $90 billion was targeted to energy projects -- the largest investment of federal dollars in the energy sector ever. Nearly $3 billion was awarded to the Bay Area from the Department of Energy alone.

The infusion of money came at a critical juncture, filling a void when the recession and global financial crisis made other sources of funding hard to come by.

The money ranged from a $1.37 billion loan guarantee to Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, which is nearing completion on the massive Ivanpah solar power plant in California's Mojave Desert, to manufacturing tax credits and dozens of direct grants to local cleantech companies, universities, labs and cities. San Jose used stimulus funds to replace 1,500 streetlights with energy-efficient and programmable LED lights.

Steve Westly, managing partner of the Westly Group, praised Chu for bringing in a strong team from the private sector to quickly invest stimulus funds, and for his continued support of research at the national labs and the SunShot program, designed to drive down the cost of solar energy so it can compete with fossil fuels.

"Secretary Chu is probably the best secretary DOE has ever had," Westly said. "He is the first secretary to combine world-class scientific expertise with the management ability necessary to lead such a large department."

During the past four years, the production of renewable energy from wind and solar has doubled. Last year, 42 percent of the new energy capacity in the United States was from wind. Solar installations, once a rarity, are increasingly mainstream. Electric vehicles are on the market.

Chu also played a key role in the government's response to both the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis in Japan.

Because the United States lacks a cohesive national plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, whether through a carbon tax, cap-and-trade program or renewable energy standard, many observers say the next energy secretary must be politically savvy and better able to work with Congress.

Obama is also under growing pressure to diversify his Cabinet picks so that they are not all white men.

Cathy Zoi, the former assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the DOEwho is now at Silicon Valley-based growth equity firm Silver Lake Kraftwerk, is often mentioned as a possible replacement, as is former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and Susan Tierney, an expert on energy policy and economics.

Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.