Opinion | Energy & Environment

Granholm should take a realistic approach at Energy Department

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

An ambitious vision and the ability to communicate it are important qualities for any Cabinet member. And President Biden's nominee for secretary of energy, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, certainly fits the bill.

When introduced as the nominee in December, she declared that her "commitment to clean energy was forged in the fire" (referring to the 2008 financial crisis) and that she is "obsessed with seizing the opportunities that a clean energy future will provide." As demonstrated by her frequent appearances on CNN and other networks, she knows how to break down an argument and make a compelling case. 

But when she takes over the Department of Energy (DOE), she'll find that reality intrudes very quickly. There's the reality of running a sprawling agency with diverse responsibilities that extend well beyond the common notion of "energy." And there's the reality of our country's existing energy system and the challenges involved in transforming it.

As for the department, Granholm received a small taste the day after her nomination when the first two questions she received from George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" were about the Russian cyberattack and its impact on DOE's national security mission. And with roughly two-thirds of the agency budget devoted to maintaining the country's nuclear weapons stockpile and cleaning up former nuclear waste sites, lawmakers' inquiries about plutonium pits and tanks of radioactive sludge are as likely as questions about wind turbines and hydropower.

As for the country's energy system, it's essential that the energy secretary - someone with the power of the bully pulpit - level with the American people. We all should agree that climate change is a major problem that needs immediate, focused action. Similarly, we should agree that while we have made significant progress toward cleaner forms of energy, much more needs to be done.

But the government can't flip a switch and make it so. Government officials need to recognize the current state of play. And they shouldn't dismiss the positive impacts of some traditional fuel sources such as natural gas and nuclear. 

Here are some relevant facts: As of 2019, 80 percent of U.S. domestic energy consumption comes from fossil fuels. Even with record additions of wind and solar during the last few years, renewable energy makes up 18 percent of the U.S. electricity production. Of the 284.5 million registered vehicles in the U.S. in 2019, only 1.4 million were plug-in electric cars. The U.S. energy infrastructure, which has been built over decades, will cost trillions of dollars to maintain, let alone transform. 

Let's take President Biden's pledge for a 100 percent clean grid in 15 years, by 2035.  First, we need to consider the overall scale and price tag of the change. Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University, pointed out, "It would be an unprecedented nation-building effort, the type of thing we haven't seen since the New Deal and the Work Progress Administration." He continued, "It took us 100 years to build the current grid." 

Second, before we can rely on a zero carbon grid, fluctuations in energy from intermittent renewable sources must be smoothed out. This was an issue in California last summer when blackouts followed the closure of several older natural gas plants that had provided back up to solar arrays. A recent report from the Progressive Policy Institute stated, "America needs natural gas now to enable and backstop the rapid deployment of renewable energy on the grid (not to mention supplying power to U.S. industries and homes)."

Besides the importance of natural gas in our domestic energy system - both in terms of ensuring reliability and reducing emissions - U.S. natural gas has also played a key role in the global system. Exports of U.S. liquified natural gas (LNG) are booming. In November 2020, the Energy Information Administration reported record-breaking LNG exports

Not only has this allowed the U.S. to leverage it for geopolitical advantages (such as reducing European dependence on Russian natural gas), but it has helped to lower global emissions. A July 2020 American Petroleum Institute study, conducted by ICF International, concluded that using U.S. LNG rather than coal for electricity generation in China, India and Germany produced over 50 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Gov. Granholm and the Biden administration have outlined aggressive goals. And now, as they begin to implement their agenda, let's hope that they recognize the progress that has been made and the scope of the challenges and trade-offs ahead. Mandates, bans and excessive spending are not the answers. Market-based solutions and private sector engagement are essential. And a realistic, measured approach is the best way to ensure durable and effective policies.   

Jeffrey Kupfer, a former acting deputy secretary of energy in the Bush administration, is an adjunct professor of policy at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College and the president of ConservAmerica.

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