WASHINGTON — U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu has high hopes that “transformative” laser drilling technology could be a boon to geothermal energy developments, especially in Hawaii.

In an interview with Civil Beat on Wednesday, Chu called the development of laser drilling “the thing that gets me the most excited” about geothermal energy. Argonne National Laboratory, one of the federal government’s oldest and largest labs, is exploring such technologies.

“This is one step away from immediate application but it could have profound effect in geothermal,” Chu said. “If you’re able to drill without having a lot of weight on the drill bit the way the oil industry is used to … you can start drilling much more rapidly.”

Chu said using lasers to make the drilling process faster would greatly reduce costs in both the oil and geothermal industries.

Rep. Mazie Hirono called investing in laser technology for geothermal one of the “priority investments” that Hawaii should be making to become energy self-sufficient.

She joined Chu for a conference call with reporters before their interview with Civil Beat.

Hawaii has received more than $23 million to fund more than 80 clean energy projects under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Chu said.

Some of the projects where Chu says he’s seen alternative energy leadership in Hawaii include developments in wind power that enable energy to be stored and the use of algae in biofuel projects. Last May, the Hawaii-based company Cellana got a $5.5 million federal grant to work on bioconversion using algae.

“Hawaii has such high electricity costs,” Chu said. “We think it’s important to help Hawaii develop those technologies that can help the citizens have more affordable electricity.”

Coincidentally or not, energy was also on Ed Case‘s agenda Wednesday. The former congressman, who faces Hirono in an August Democratic U.S. Senate primary, sent an email to supporters about his energy plan. Case called Hawaii a “natural laboratory” for alternative energy research, and highlighted the importance of federal funding to speed up development of solar, wind, geothermal, ocean thermal and biofuels projects.

The Republican frontrunner in the Senate race, former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle says on her campaign website that federal spending on energy should spur economic growth by facilitating public and private investments.

Case and Hirono, too, see economic potential in energy investment.

“What I hear from people in Hawaii is that, in this economy, they want us to focus on jobs,” Hirono said.

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