"The development of clean, renewable energy will be a growth industry in the 21st century," said Dr. Chu, a distinguished scientist and co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997.
The $795 million plant, scheduled to open in December 2011, will burn 322,000 tons of wood products and shredded tires a year and emit less pollution than the aging coal-fired facility it will replace.
It will also generate, in addition to electricity and steam for use at SRS, about 800 construction jobs, he said. "And it will pay for itself through cost savings."
Dr. Chu, appointed by President Obama and sworn in Jan. 21, joined more than 100 guests to break ground for the 20 megawatt plant being built by Ameresco Federal Solutions Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn.
Though the U.S. has about one-fourth of the world's coal reserves, Dr. Chu said this country also has an obligation to take advantage of renewable energy.
"The question is which nations will export such technology and which nations will be buying it from elsewhere," he said. "It is ours to lose. In this clean-energy economy -- which I consider inevitable -- the United States will become a world leader."
The steam-generating plant will be the government's largest, though there is a larger private one in Virginia, according to the Energy Department.
Estimates show the project will save $34 million a year in energy, operation and maintenance costs and reduce air emissions, including 100,000 tons of greenhouse gas annually from the coal being burned at the current facility.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a speaker at Monday's event, said the government shows leadership in undertaking projects such as the SRS facility.
"We believe wholeheartedly in President Obama's initiative to make this country energy independent," he said. "The transition to a clean-energy economy is inevitable."
Others at the groundbreaking included Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Gresham Barrett, Rep. Joseph Wilson, Rep. John Barrow of Georgia and Gov. Mark Sanford.
Before his appointment, Dr. Chu was the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and a professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at the University of California. Monday marked his first visit to SRS as secretary of energy.
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- Design capacity of 240,000 pounds per hour of steam and 20 megawatts of electric power
- Reduction of 400 tons per year of particulate matter emissions that now come from a coal-fired plant
- Reduction of 3,500 tons per year sulfur dioxide emissions
- Reduction of 100,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions
- Decrease water intake from the Savannah River by 1.4 billion gallons a year
- Eliminate 2.5 miles of steam distribution lines