Energy department nominee Moniz pro nuclear and natural gas but ‘bullish’ on solar

  • Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz.
    Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz. Image: MIT
  •   Moniz takes a pragmatic view of the future mix of fossil fuel and low-carbon energy sources.
    Ernest Moniz told a Congressional hearing that this slide illustrates the essential role natural gas plays between now and 2050 by substituting for coal generation. "It also makes the point that the bridge must have a suitable landing point," he said. "We must continue to invest in research in carbon-free sources – renewables, nuclear, and CCS for both coal and natural gas."

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Felicity Carus
Felicity Carus
Felicity Carus is the only UK journalist to be regularly reporting on clean energy policy and finance from California for a global audience. Before arriving in San Francisco in 2010, Felicity was on the Guardian's environment desk in London after stints at the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and Interfax in Russia. She first "broke" into the renewables industry with a commission in the mid-90s to write a book on how to install a solar water heating system with a rusty old radiator. The industry has come a long way since then, thankfully…

President Barack Obama might have selected another boffin to replace his much-respected first appointee at the Department of Energy, but Ernest Moniz may turn out to be a very different political animal from Steven Chu.

Like Chu, Moniz is a physics professor plucked from a prestigious university, this time from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) rather than Stanford University. But where the Nobel Prizewinner wore kid gloves to massage data and science into government funded programmes, such as ARPA-E and the SunShot Initiative, Moniz could become Obama's prize-fighting scientist, having already done time on Capitol Hill, including a stint as Bill Clinton's Undersecretary of Energy.

Moniz may be a theoretical scientist, but he has earned a reputation for pragmatism among policymakers and industry leaders.

Dave McCurdy, head of the American Gas Association and a former congressman from Oklahoma, told NPR after Moniz's nomination: "Ernie Moniz understands Washington. He knows that you have to work with both sides of the political aisle. You have to build consensus."

Michael Lubell, Director of Public Affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, said: "Even before he came to Washington he was a pretty savvy guy politically, and certainly the years he's spent in Washington have honed those skills. My guess is that he will navigate the treacherous congressional and political waters very well."

Moniz has of course yet to be appointed and will have to endure a grilling in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee before Congress approves Obama's first choice.

But what does the solar industry expect from him? We'll have to wait for more information from the Congressional hearing in a couple of weeks' time, but Moniz has previously hinted at his "bullish" stance on solar.

"I will admit to being very bullish on solar in the long term," he told the Switch Energy Project. "It just has so many attractive features, including the fact that it's intermittent, at least it tends to be on when you want it.

"But there are other issues. For example, for the large utility-scale solar thermal plants, they have to be in places that have very clear direct sunshine. It's a solution in large parts of the south west and then however, you're in the old problem - typically you're far from demand, you still require some water, that can be a challenge. With all of these things, there is no one-size fits all."

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) pointed out that under the Obama administration, the amount of solar powering homes, businesses, and military bases has grown by nearly 500% to more than 6,400MW and employs more than 119,000 Americans at 5,600 companies.

Rhone Resch, president and chief executive of SEIA, told PV-Tech that a continuation of the programmes, tempo and tenor set by Chu would be most welcome.

"Building on much of the work that the DoE has been doing for the last four years is important," he said. "We don't need to reinvent a lot of what's going on at DoE but rather continue to fund it and continue to make it a priority.

"The SunShot Initiative in particular is more than just a goal. It's a very clear formula for how we achieve cost reductions.

"Dr Moniz has a very long line of experience both at MIT and DoE in working on solar both in materials science as well has identifying cost reductions in the solar industry. This prepares him fully for the challenges that are facing the industry today. We're very excited to have Dr Moniz coming back to Washington."

It would be difficult to find a bigger cheerleader for solar than Chu, but Moniz may turn out to give the renewables industry some mixed signals with his support for natural gas and nuclear.

Potential future controversy could be read between the lines spoken by Obama when the nomination for this "brilliant scientist" was officially announced last week along with Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“They’re going to be making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change," said the US president. "Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, our water and our climate. And so I could not be more pleased to have Ernie join us."

As director of MIT's Energy Initiative (MITEI), supported by BP, Shell and Chevron to the tune of a reported $125 million since 2006, Moniz has walked a pragmatist's line between science, industry and policy.

Moniz is no stranger to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In July 2011, he appeared to give testimony on an MIT study called The Future of Natural Gas.

Moniz believes that natural gas could be a “bridge” to a low-carbon future that could reduce carbon emissions in the electricity sector as coal fired power stations close.

"In broad terms, we find that, given the large amounts of natural gas available in the US at moderate cost (enabled to a large degree by the shale gas resource), natural gas can indeed play an important role over the next couple of decades (together with demand management) in economically advancing a clean energy system.

But by 2050, alternatives to natural gas must be ready, placing renewables in the same "low carbon bucket" as nuclear and CCS for both coal and natural gas, he said.

"With increasingly stringent carbon dioxide emissions reductions, natural gas would eventually become too carbon intensive, which highlights the importance of a robust innovation programme for zero-carbon options," he said.

Moniz recently repeated his position at Washington's World Affairs Council: "Since I see the zero carbon alternatives all having 10-year or longer time frames, I will argue it's buying us time as long as it displaces coal. The caution is, buying time doesn't matter if you don't use the time."

Even though Moniz is "anti-coal" from a climate change perspective, his advocacy of low-carbon energy and natural gas sends out mixed signals for the renewable industry.

Furthermore, Moniz marked himself out as an advocate of nuclear energy in an article he wrote in 2011 for Foreign Affairs magazine entitled ‘Why We Still Need Nuclear Power’.

"It would be a mistake, however, to let Fukushima cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits," he wrote. "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."

The nuclear industry is already lining up in the lobbying queue to press Moniz to reconsider approval for the nuclear waste disposal Mountain in Nevada, which would remove a huge and expensive bottleneck for nuclear companies in the US. Not-so-cheap cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Washington State, which is expected to cost billions of DoE dollars over decades, will also be in Moniz's in-tray.

Politicians, businesses, industry advocates and environmentalists are still managing their expectations of what they might demand of Moniz.

Greg Rosen, Chief Investment Officer at solar investment company Mosaic, told PV-Tech: "Dr Moniz brings a wealth of experience to the table, and if confirmed, Mosaic hopes that as secretary he will aggressively work to support the solar industry given its proven worth both as an economic engine for the US and as a means of achieving a low-carbon future.

"From our perspective he can do so by building on the substantial efforts that DoE has made in solar over the last several years, particularly in the area of deployment and finance, and also by working to level the playing field relative to dirtier forms of energy and by investing in solutions that maximise the use of intermittent resources in the US power mix."

Moniz's first task will be to demonstrate how he can lead the DoE's 16,000 employees through arguably the most dynamic period of change in US energy history, even as its $27 billion budget for 2013 will come under increasing scrutiny and pressure to make cuts.

While Moniz might be a more politically pugnacious character than Chu, it's not yet clear which side he will fight on.

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