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[ Steven Chu to Step Down as U.S. Energy Secretary ]

Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who has served for four years as President Barack Obama’s Energy Secretary, announced his resignation on Friday.

As of this weekend, Chu will become the nation’s longest-serving energy secretary, a record previously held by Spencer Abraham, who served in the Cabinet post under President George W. Bush. The former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Chu was largely a newcomer to politics when he took on the post in 2009.

He said he will stay on as head of the Department of Energy at least until the end of this month, and possibly until a successor is confirmed.

“During his time as Secretary, Steve helped my Administration move America towards real energy independence,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House on Friday. “Over the past four years, we have doubled the use of renewable energy, dramatically reduced our dependence on foreign oil, and put our country on a path to win the global race for clean energy jobs.”

In a lengthy letter to Energy Department employees, Chu said, “I came with dreams, and am leaving with a set of accomplishments that we should all be proud of.”

In addition to the achievements mentioned by the president, Chu also noted the implementation of the ARPA-E program, which funds high-risk, high-reward energy research, being entrusted by Congress with a $36 billion investment through the Recovery Act to create more clean energy jobs, as well as efforts like helping one million low-income homeowners weatherize their homes. (See related story: “Storage, Biofuel Lead $156 Million in Energy Research Grants“)

Chu played an instrumental role in helping to measure and eventually stop the flow of oil from BP’s Macondo well after the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. He personally worked with BP during its attempts to end the spill, an effort so admired by President Obama that, on at least one occasion, the president was a bit overzealous in his praise for it.

Though Chu had significant achievements during his tenure, controversy over the DoE’s failed $528 million loan to Solyndra, the solar panel maker that later went bankrupt and laid off its 1,100 employees, marked a low point. He was the subject of harsh criticism, especially from Republican lawmakers, who said Chu and his staff missed warning signs about Solyndra. Chu said while its outcome was “regrettable,” the loan was given “proper, rigorous scrutiny and healthy debate” before it was approved in 2009.

After a year and a half of investigations, no wrongdoing was proven, according to Politico.

Following on the heels of the Solyndra failure was A123 Systems, which manufactures electric car batteries. That company received $249 million in federal grants as part of the stimulus but filed for bankruptcy in October. (See also: “Battery Maker A123 Sold at Auction to Chinese Firm“)

“While critics try hard to discredit the [Recovery Act grants and loans] program, the truth is that only one percent of the companies of the companies we funded went bankrupt,” Chu wrote in his farewell letter Friday. “That one percent has gotten more attention than the 99 percent that have not.”

The White House said that no decisions have been made yet on a nominee to take Chu’s place, but the speculation has begun. Some possible successors include former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Ernie Moniz has also been mentioned.

As for Chu, he said in his letter that he and his wife were “eager to return to California.”

“I would like to return to an academic life of teaching and research, but will still work to advance the missions that we have been working on together for the last four years,” he wrote.

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