New US Energy Secretary shakes up DOE, calls for ‘hundreds of gigawatts’ of new clean energy

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Jennifer M. Granholm. Image: Centre for American Progress

The US will need “hundreds of gigawatts” of carbon-free energy installed within the next four years to meet its climate targets, new Energy secretary Jennifer Granholm has said.

Speaking during energy industry conference CERAWeek 2021, Granholm used her first speech as Energy secretary to stress the sheer scale of clean energy deployment needed in the US in order to meet its own decarbonisation targets, while signalling that the department’s Loan Programs Office is now “back open for business” to fund clean energy technologies.

“We have to add hundreds of gigawatts to the grid over the next four years,” she said. “It’s a huge amount, and there’s so little time.”

The former Michigan governor, who was sworn in on Thursday (26 February 2021), has entered office at a time when unusual weather patterns have caused power failures across Texas, in which solar power proved resilient in comparison with fossil fuel plants. She made her debut this week “extending a hand of partnership” to oil and gas companies to work with the new administration on a low carbon energy transition.

“The bottom line is this particular growth of clean energy and reduction of carbon provides a huge opportunity and I’m extending a hand of partnership,” she said.

President Biden has set a target for the US to reach 100% carbon-free electricity generation by 2035, and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Granholm said in her speech that the transition would create millions of jobs in construction, skilled trades, and engineering while gradually shutting down oil and gas production. Analysis from the Sun Day campaign last month claimed that renewables could make up 30% of the US’ energy capacity mix within the next four years, while solar installations outstripped natural gas in capacity terms for the first time last year.

As part of this transition, the DOE will invest “billions” of dollars into the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), which has just put out a US$100 million dollar request for “transformative” clean energy technologies and projects such as more efficient solar arrays.

In addition, Granholm announced the revival of the Loan Programs Office, which she noted was “unused over the last four years” during Trump’s time as President. The LPO has been used to fund companies such as Tesla, which received a US$465 million loan in 2010 and repaid it in just three years, but is not without its share of missteps. The DOE was criticised over its due diligence in 2015 concerning a more that US$500 million loan offered to CIGS thin-film producer Solyndra, which later collapsed.

“Our loan authority has helped some of America’s bravest entrepreneurs get their best ideas off the ground, and flourish into what they are today,” she said, adding that the LPO will become a key feature of the energy transition and used to “spur the next generation of innovation and deployment”.

Granholm is not the only new addition to the DOE. She has also named Jigar Shah, co-founder of Generate Capital and founder of SunEdison, director of the Loan Programs Office, which oversees around US$40 billion in loan authority in manufacturing, finance and tribal energy projects.

Karen Skelton, meanwhile, will become a senior advisor to Granholm. She was previously the chief executive of Californian political consultancy Skelton Strategies, having served in the Clinton-Gore Administration as Gore’s first political director and Clinton’s deputy director, and in the US Departments of Justice and Transportation.

Chief of Staff Tarak Shah said both new recruits “understand the urgency of the climate crisis” and will know how to implement “transformative policies” necessary for the US to reach its renewable energy goals.

The announcement came in the same week that Biden’s Department of Justice (DOJ) backed a controversial tariff on bifacial solar panels, which industry insiders have labelled “punitive and ill-conceived” and claim will “hinder” the transition.

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