RP Siegel

Is the New Energy Secretary a Few Shades Greener Than We Thought?

Ernest Moniz will likely have more than his fair share of both opportunities and challenges as he begins his tenure as the 13th Secretary of Energy. His term began on a high note as he received a check for $465 million from Tesla, as repayment for a DOE loan, which was repaid nine years early. The loans were part of an $8 billion stimulus package to the auto industry which included loans to Ford, Nissan and Tesla. This plays directly in Moniz’s strong suit – innovation, specifically on the demand side, which is really just another way to say efficiency.

Other aspects of his tenure will not be quite so effortless. Early indications are that the newly minted secretary might be a few shades greener than anyone expected, but the jury is mostly still out.

Though Moniz pulls no punches when it comes to the need to rein in carbon emissions on account of climate change, the question of how the transition from fossil fuels will take place and what role natural gas, the “cleaner fossil fuel,” will play in the long run are far from settled. Also unclear is the role of nuclear energy and other unconventional sources.

A Temporary Halt To Natural Gas Exports

America is currently experiencing a natural gas boom with record low prices, largely due to disputed fracking extraction techniques, which environmentalists say potentially threaten local water supplies. Seizing the opportunity, developers are hoping to begin exporting natural gas overseas, where prices are considerable higher. Moniz put a stop to that, at least momentarily, saying he needed to review some 20 export applications before he could give his approval. An earlier DOE study said that gas exports would help the U.S. economy no matter happened with prices, though Senate Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said that the study was flawed and based on old data. Export supporters claim that new facilities will create jobs.

In his first speech as Secretary, Moniz said that energy efficiency would be moved “way, way up,” in priority. He reiterated President Obama’s call to double energy productivity by 2030, vowing to help advance the bipartisan Sheehan-Portman energy efficiency bill, through the winding maze of congressional approval.

Secretary’s Intentions Unclear on Nuclear

It’s unclear what his plans are regarding nuclear power. Moniz, a nuclear physicist who served as associate director of the Office of Science & Technology in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, has been a longtime proponent of nuclear power. He wrote a piece post-Fukushima called “Why We Still Need Nuclear Power.” In it, he argued:

“It would be a mistake … to let Fukushima cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits. Electricity generation emits more carbon dioxide in the United States than does transportation or industry, and nuclear power is the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the country. Nuclear power generation is also relatively cheap, costing less than two cents per kilowatt-hour for operations, maintenance, and fuel.”

It’s unclear at this point what he intends to do in support of this. At this moment, the nuclear industry seems unable to compete with surging renewables and appears to be drowning in its own cost projections.

And on Fracking, Apparent Support

As for fracking, perhaps the most contentious issue on the energy front, Moniz speaking to a Senate panel two years ago called the water and air pollution risks from fracking “challenging but manageable” with appropriate regulation and oversight.

During his tenure at MIT, Moniz had strong ties with the oil and gas industry, receiving some $125 million in support from them for the MIT Energy Initiative, which he led as director. While he has not yet shown his hand on fracking or on the Keystone XL pipeline, there are clear signs that he supports both.

He might have disappointed those supporters, however, in his speech recently, referring to natural gas as “kind of a bridge to a very low-carbon future … it affords us a little bit more time to develop the technologies, to lower the costs of the alternative technologies, to get the market penetration of these new technologies.”

Thus far, the Ernest Moniz who was sworn in seems more environmentally friendly than the one who has gone on record in the past. Time will tell what his true colors are, probably sooner rather than later in this, what he calls, “the crucial decade” for getting advanced renewable energy technologies off the ground and into the mainstream marketplace.

 

 

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