Tag Archives: politics

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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Wind Will It End?

Please forgive me for the cheezy post title, but if you choose to read on I think you will see it is relevant. When we discuss the challenges facing wind energy we hear about the intermittency and storage issues, destroying the visual landscape, lack of transmission and even the dangers posed to birds. Many people also raise valid concerns regard whether or not wind can be economically feasible without government subsidies, regulations and mandates. A recent Scientific American article shows that wind proponents should also worry about the challenges we don’t hear about every day.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these less discussed challenges are coming from wind’s competitors. The Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy believes wind producers should fork over the funds needed to expand the transmission infrastructure from the areas of the country where wind energy is produced (the Midwest) to the areas with the highest energy demand (the East Coast). While this seems like a reasonable idea on the surface you should be asking yourself who is this Coalition?  Turns out the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy is made up of East Coast utilities.

Closer to home we have players in the natural gas game demanding that wind developers be held responsible for some of the costs associated with running backup natural gas generators. These generators are essential in providing electricity when the wind slows down and is unable to produce the needed amount of electricity. As before this appears to be a reasonable suggestion. Why shouldn’t wind energy producers help foot at least part of the costs generated when a gas turbine is turned on to make up for a decline in wind energy? At the same time this seems like an attempt by the natural gas industry to increase their competitions costs and help keep natural gas competitive on price.

Anyone who is familiar with the wind industry understands the large role played by the government. While people can certainly debate whether the government should be involved at all and if so to what level, nobody can deny the importance of politics in the past or in the future. In my podcast I touched on the concerns Senator Charles Schumer raised regarding the spending of stimulus funds on projects that were creating more jobs in China than in the United States. Now Schumer and three other Senators proposed a plan that would prevent federal grants being issued to any project used blades or turbines manufactured outside of the U.S. opponents of the Senators’ plan claim that the U.S. cannot afford to slow or limit the growth of the wind industry because it will only put us at risk of falling behind Chinese and European manufacturers. They also point out that Schumer and his colleagues are simply trying to funnel jobs to their states and the number of jobs going overseas has been exaggerated. As with most things in politics the number of jobs being created in and outside of the United States differs significantly depending on who you talk to and before you know it the whole issue has taken a nasty turn towards “he said, she said”-ville.

It is obvious each of these parties (Senators, utilities, the natural gas industry) and their actions are motivated through their own self-interests, but it should be just as obvious that we cannot simply dismiss these legitimate concerns simply because we do not support the people raising them. In a perfect world we would be focused on finding solutions for the “natural” problems facing wind instead of creating additional artificial roadblocks. In that same perfect world everyone would be working towards the common goal of creating clean renewable energy and the traditional utility, natural gas and coal industries would be okay with that. Reality is the world isn’t perfect and the future of wind energy is hardly certain. For the wind industry to continue its impressive growth they will have to learn to be just as focused on navigating the wonderful world of politics and viciously competitive energy industry as they are with coming up with solutions to their storage issues.

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