Energy nominee Moniz promises early action on energy storage

  • Ernest Moniz with Gina McCarthy and Barack Obama
    Obama's energy secretary nominee sailed through questioning by a Senate committee

Ernest Moniz, Barack Obama's nominee for energy secretary, last week told a Senate committee that he would set a timetable to consider energy storage, the holy grail of renewable integration, within 30 days of taking office.

Ron Wyden, a Democratic Senator from Oregon and chairman of the US Senate committee on energy & natural resources, pressed Moniz towards the end of the three-hour hearing on schedule for action at the Department of Energy to stimulate investment and adoption.

"This is a field with great promise," he said. "This is a catalyst for expanded use of renewables, particularly when you're talking about wind and solar and sources that are intermittent. If we can get a serious effort under way in this country to promote energy storage, this could really be a spark in the area of expanding renwables and driving the costs down.

"In the past I've introduced tax legislation to catalyse some investment in the private sector. But what's been frustrating is trying to get the department to put in place a plan on energy storage and work with the private and academic sector."

Wyden said he had been trying to get a response to this request for three and half years and asked Moniz to commit within 30 days after confirmation to get the committee a plan on energy storage.

"I hope you see the sense of urgency here," said Wyden.

Moniz at first resisted the challenge. "Large-scale storage is an enabler and we should be pushing it," said Moniz. "I will push this plan aggressively. I'm reluctant to commit to 30 days. It's very important to convene appropriate people from universities, labs and industry. That process may take a couple of months. [But] expeditiously, yes."

But after further pressing from Wyden, he agreed to give the committee a date to at least start the process within 30 days of taking office.

"Bingo!" Moniz replied.

In his opening testimony, Moniz told the committee of his commitment to the president's “all of the above” energy strategy,

"I will pursue this with the highest priority," he said. "The need to mitigate climate change risks is emphatically supported by the science and by many military and religious leaders as well as the engaged scientific community. DOE should continue to support a robust R&D portfolio of low-carbon options: efficiency, renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and sequestration, energy storage."

Moniz agreed with Wyden that it was a priority that acceleration to lower carbon economy had to pick up.

"We are in a historic trend towards low carbon and I agree we should pick up the pace," he said.

Moniz was also asked what he could do as energy secretary to bring down the cost of renewables and help America become globally competitive.

"In the end, the goal of innovation in this space is to reduce the costs so that we can have the lowest energy costs across the board," he said. "We are seeing remarkable cost reductions already occurring, solar energy has seen dramatic reductions, wind is competitive in many places."

However, Moniz fell short of what some environmental and renewables advocates had hoped to see, by underscoring his support for natural gas, nuclear and even currently price prohibitive technologies such as carbon capture sequestration as lower carbon energy choices.

"In other places, we still have our research jobs cut out for us… all of the above will include CCS and small modular reactors," he said. "It's the department's push on the R&D agenda to lower costs."

Senator Wyden also pointed out that Moniz's challenge as energy secretary will be reform of clean energy DoE loans programme, so that taxpayers are more protected, by carving them into separate financing programmes based on financial and technical risk.

Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Senator and the Republican chair of the committee, warned the energy secretary nominee not to make the same "mistakes" of his predecessor on backing clean energy.

"We have seen the department make a series of bad or unnecessary bets – on Solyndra, A123, and others – that have left taxpayers on the hook for substantial losses," she said. "All of us would do well to remember that success is not measured through spending or good intentions, but the actual results that are achieved."

Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Clean Energy Programme, said: "When the administration says it's pursuing an all of the above energy strategy I think the Moniz nomination reflects that. Because he's worked on other issues doesn't mean the administration is going to take their foot off the clean energy pedal.

"But what they have clearly tried to do at the DoE is find people who are very knowledgeable about energy and not pick someone from a region of the country or a former member of congress or former association leader. It reflects a steady state for the administration."

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