Speaking in her first public forum as U.S. Secretary of Energy, Jennifer M. Granholm discussed her vision for the DOE on Wednesday morning, Day 3, at the virtual CERAWeek conference in a plenary session entitled, “Welcome Remarks and Special Dialog.” Joining her as moderator was IHS Markit Vice Chairman Daniel Yergin. During the talk, Secretary Granholm proposed a progressive agenda for energy research and innovation, to help the Biden Administration achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and carbon/pollution-free energy generation by 2035.
Green will create unique opportunities. Granholm initiated the session by emphasizing the potential positives of a wide-scale energy transition. “The development and implementation of products that reduce carbon emissions will create a $23 trillion global market over the next several decades.” “The question is which countries are going to be at the forefront of development,” Granholm asked. “Are they going to be in China or another one of our economic competitors? You had better believe that the ensuing scientific race to develop these carbon-reducing technologies will be intense and filled with foreign factions vying for this economic sector. The plan is for the U.S. to surge to the forefront of this battle. President Biden is demanding that the U.S. get into the battle on behalf of the America people. For too many years, we have watched as other countries have crafted economic opportunities through manufacturing and start-ups, while the U.S. stood on the sidelines. This stops now. Are we going to get in the battle? Or are we going to bring a knife to a gunfight?” she said.
The DOE, “one of our country’s most fierce fighting forces, will aggressively pursue opportunities for American citizens, as we develop and implement a carbon-free economy. This will include adding multi-hundreds of gigawatts of clean energy generation capabilities over the next four years. It’s a huge challenge, but we all need to work together to combat the climate crisis, while adding millions of good paying jobs,” Granholm emphasized.
History of scientific achievement. “Although the task seems daunting, the DOE has many powerful tools in its arsenal to achieve these goals,” continued the Secretary. “The DOE has long been where the nation turns for the technological know-how to tackle complex challenges. The basic scientific research that is performed daily at DOE’s 17 National Laboratories is responsible for advancing some of our most remarkable breakthroughs. We invest in America’s first-rate scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, who have developed and deployed technologies that improve our lives, create good-paying union jobs and jump-start new industries.
“These laboratories,” explained Granholm, “are working to expand our carbon-free technology base. For example, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee are working on a new device that makes carbon capture more efficient, using aluminum and implementing a 3-D printing method to manufacture the new technology. At the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, scientists are working on next-generation battery technologies that are twice as energy-dense as current products.”
Multifaceted toolbox. After research at the national laboratories has identified a new opportunity, the DOE also possess the capability to turn that science into deployable technology. “In our applied energy program—that runs the gamut from renewables, to carbon capture, hydrogen and grid technologies—these scientists are going to make it their mission to bring these clean energy solutions to life,” said Granholm. “This week, our geothermal office put $46 million developing cutting-edge projects that have the potential to power millions of American homes. Although geothermal is an old technology, it will factor into America’s new energy mix,” insisted the Secretary.
The DOE also sponsors seed R&D, which will play a meaningful role going forward to finance out-of-the-box start-ups, like seaweed farming drones to extract biofuels and more efficient solar arrays that use compressed air. The DOE just announced a $100 million program to fund transformative clean-energy ideas and bring them to fruition. “This funding is just the start of billions of dollars the DOE plans to offer this year,” Granholm said.
“Another powerful tool in the DOE arsenal is the ability to fund deployment of new technologies, once they are identified,” she noted. “As of today, the “loan authority office” is back in business and has the power to allocate $40 billion in financial aid. The program has helped some of America’s bravest entrepreneurs launch their best ideas and turn them into new businesses. For example, when photovoltaic solar developers wanted to ramp-up operations to meet growing demand for renewable energy, the DOE stepped in and help them build the first five utility-scale facilities in the nation.”
“Also, when a ‘little company called Tesla’ wanted to manufacture the first zero emission full-size electric vehicles, it was the DOE loan program office that help them grow their first factory to production scale,” explained Granholm. “The loan to Tesla was repaid, and the American taxpayer reaped a $500 million profit in interest payments. Although the loan generation program was largely unused over the last four years, I plan to ‘rev the program back up,’ to reinvigorate the next generation of innovation and deployment.”
New leadership. Referring to U.S. energy policy as a “battle” requiring “great leaders,” Granholm said she is “excited to announce that the DOE has appointed Jigar Shah—a clean-power pioneer who helped bring solar into the mainstream—to run the loan-program unit. Shah—who has written the playbook on how to drive clean energy to market—will oversee $40 billion in loans that are now available to support clean energy projects. Shah is a longtime champion of clean power at entities including SunEdison and Generate, which builds and finances sustainable-energy projects. To bring these emerging technologies to life, we are going to need hundreds of skilled workers to implement the new technologies to build a new American energy economy. To help those in the coal and the oil industries, we have opened an Office of Energy Jobs to help these workers translate their skills into new clean energy jobs.”
However, she also acknowledged that the pace of the transition has provoked anxieties among the oil and gas industry about the scale of potential job loss in the sector. “I’m not going to sugarcoat how hard transitions are. I saw it firsthand, as governor of Michigan, when people lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” Granholm said, while arguing that skills would be able to be transferred to the promised boom industries of wind development and geothermal. “This is our opportunity to build the energy economy back better, in a way that lifts up communities that have felt unseen or abandoned or left behind too long,” she said, through clear opportunities to create clean energy jobs. “That also includes communities of color, who have been particularly hard-hit by air pollution and high energy prices,” she noted, and who are often the “first and worst” impacted by the climate emergency.
Texas electricity grid. Granholm then focused her attention on addressing the freezing storms that battered Texas, resulting in power losses for millions. Granholm warned, “this is a sign of what’s to come. There will be events like this that occur with greater frequency, and we have to think of the resilience of the grid, even if you live in warm places.” Granholm followed her warning that Texas’s crippling winter storm will not be just a “one-off,” by urging the state’s legislators to consider connecting its grid to that of its neighbors. Texas’s isolated grid, which cannot take or provide power to neighboring states, was flagged as one of the causes for the extent of the blackouts, reducing its flexibility to draw power from other sources. “While I understand the ‘go it alone’ ethos, there’s also an ethos of helping your neighbor, too,” Granholm said.