Dr. Ernest Moniz: A New Era for Energy?

On Monday March 4th, President Barack Obama filled two important, energy-related positions in his administration with the nomination of Ernest Moniz for the Secretary of Energy and of Gina McCarthy for the administrator of the EPA. These nominations mark a changing of the guard as both Steven Chu and Lisa Jackson move on to other pursuits. Furthermore, they come at a time when political momentum to combat climate change and to tackle energy issues seem to be increasing.  Recently, in both his Inaugural Address and State of the Union speech, President Obama discussed the threat of climate change and the need for cleaner energy technologies.  With this new momentum of support for clean energy, the appointment of a new Energy secretary raises a few questions. Just who is Ernest (Ernie) Moniz and will he be able to capitalize on the seemingly shifting politics of climate change to push towards a more renewable future?

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

First, let’s talk about his background.  With experience as an experimental scientist and as a government administrator, Moniz is no rookie to energy technology or policy issues. Formally trained as a nuclear physicist at Stanford University, he joined the physics faculty at MIT in 1973 where he later went on to become department head. Then, from 1995 to 1997, he served as the associate director for Science in the White House Office, and from 1997 to 2001, he served as the Undersecretary of Energy. Currently, Moniz is a professor of physics and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as the director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), a program started in 2006 to link all of the interdisciplinary energy research projects taking place on MIT’s campus. No one can argue about his outstanding resume. He brings technical knowledge from his experience as a professor and administrative knowledge from his background in the government. All of these experiences should help Moniz get settled quickly into the new position and allow him the opportunity to hit the ground running on different energy opportunities.

© Justin Knight. Courtesy of M.I.T.

© Justin Knight. Courtesy of M.I.T.

However, it is also important to consider his history with some of the important energy technology issues. Under Moniz, the MITEI has supported many different research projects and two thirds of them have been associated with renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon management, and other renewable energy enabling tools. The largest single area of funded research for the Energy Initiative has been in solar energy. Nevertheless, Moniz does not deny the importance of oil and gas production and supports hydraulic fracturing technology, putting some environmentalists up in arms.  He has stated that natural gas is “a bridge to a low-carbon future,” a comment that even more environmentalists  dislike. This information is important. Research into his background and history on different energy topics provides vital information about how he will approach the same technologies in his new position.  At the same time, though, how much will energy policy even factor into Moniz’s job?

© Getty Images

© Getty Images

It might be even more important to consider the limitations of the Department of Energy’s budget. As Forbes Magazine reports, “Moniz knows better than anyone else that the Department of Energy has almost nothing to do with energy.  It’s all about weapons and waste. Nuclear weapons and nuclear waste to be exact.” To visualize this assertion, take a look at this interesting graphic that breaks down the DoE’s 2013 fiscal year budget . About 65% of the department’s budget relates to nuclear weapons, nuclear waste management, and other nuclear technologies.  Only 15% of the budget solely relates to energy technologies of which almost 3% goes into nuclear energy funding, and Moniz, a nuclear physicist himself, is a strong proponent of nuclear energy. After the Fukushima crisis in 2011 when many countries decided to shut down or curtail their nuclear programs in response to environmentalists, he stated that “it would be a mistake” to let Japan’s Fukushima failure to end the use of nuclear power. To a certain extent, it makes sense that the last two Energy Secretaries were nuclear and atomic physicists.  The majority of their budget deals with general nuclear technology, not with a variety of energy technologies.

For this reason, it will be interesting to see if Moniz will try to reinsert the word Energy back into the Department of Energy. His record as a researcher and policy leader in both the scientific community as well as the energy industry should provide him with the skills and resources to do some heavy lifting in such an important time for Energy policy. Only time will tell if he will be a game changer for the DoE and for energy policy in the United States.

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