Through funding clean technologies, cementing incentives for renewables and helping the United States adapt to a new normal, the Department of Energy will be a major player in meeting President Obama’s climate goals.
The administration’s Climate Action Plan, presented earlier this year, uses executive authority to bypass a divided Legislature to mitigate the country’s impacts on the global climate.
Many of the policy discussions on the plan have focused on EPA, which wields the stick of carbon emissions restrictions, but DOE holds the carrot of incentives that spur new energy innovations, which officials say could benefit the economy and the environment.
“You can’t have that conversation without an accelerated transition to a clean energy economy,” said Kevin Knobloch, chief of staff to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
Speaking at yesterday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., Knobloch echoed Secretary Moniz’s statement that the department will not relitigate the science behind climate change but will instead focus on solutions, laying out the department’s role in curbing emissions. “The overwhelming conclusion is that prudence demands strong, common-sense, near-term policy actions to minimize the risk of global warming,” he said.
In July, DOE released a report on how climate change will directly affect the energy sector, highlighting dozens of electrical outages and disruptions in the United States in recent years (ClimateWire, July 12).
Meanwhile, renewable generation doubled over the past four years, carbon emissions have slowed and a boom in natural gas has driven prices to record lows, drastically resculpting the United States’ energy profile.
Grid improvements, loan guarantees and energy efficiency
With this backdrop, DOE is stepping harder on the gas pedal to drive the country to greater energy efficiency and less greenhouse gas emissions.
Knobloch said the department is investing in modernizing the electrical grid to better accommodate the new energy mix and improve resiliency under the specter of hurricanes and snowstorms. He noted that friction is emerging between utilities and rooftop solar developers in some states over who pays for the grid and how incentives are structured (ClimateWire, Sept. 3). Smoothing this over is crucial to further developing distributed solar energy.
DOE also announced proposals for higher efficiency for metal halide lamp fixtures, commercial freezers and commercial refrigerators and will announce rules for electric motors in November.
“We intend to finalize all four of these rules by May of next year,” Knobloch said. “There will be much more to come in terms of looking across the economy for ways to improve the efficiency of our machines and systems.”
As part of the administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy, DOE has expanded its much-maligned loan guarantee program to low-carbon fossil fuel technologies to the tune of $8 billion (ClimateWire, July 3).
Knobloch defended the department’s investments in early-stage research and companies, noting that despite the albatross of Solyndra, DOE has a 98 percent success rate for its loan guarantees to high-risk ventures, an enviable portfolio for any investor.
“When private capital was holding back because the technology was so innovative it was viewed as risky, and because of the urgency to act in the context of climate change, this program has shown that in fact it can fill that gap and then get out of the way,” he said. “This is precisely the outcome the president envisions for the program.”
He touted the success of electric automaker Tesla, which repaid its DOE obligations almost a decade ahead of schedule.
Preparing for warmer weather, more frequent storms and lingering droughts is also a major component of the Climate Action Plan, which Knobloch described as a major advance in adaptation policy at the federal level. He cited a memorandum of understanding between DOE and the state of New Jersey to build a transit microgrid to make public transportation in the state more resistant to storms.
Money crunch looms dead ahead
DOE’s activities will also lead developing countries by example, illustrating paths to industrialization that eschew dirty fuels, he added.
Gregory Unruh, the Arison Group Endowed Professor of Doing Good Values at George Mason University, applauded DOE’s climate efforts but noted that many of its initiatives are small projects rather than the huge energy restructuring needed to make a substantial dent in the United States’ carbon emissions.
“They are largely development and demonstration options, not really the sort of massive rollout of rapid change that we really need,” he said.
Many of the low-carbon and energy-efficient technologies needed to fight climate change are already available, according to Unruh. “It’s not a problem of hardware; it’s a problem of software – the software being our political institutions and our financial institutions, our consumer attitudes and approaches,” he said. “That’s a much more challenging, much more difficult thing to tackle.”
Several of DOE’s recent initiatives were funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Unruh said major problems, like the economic collapse in 2008, make it easier to enact new ideas, but even as symptoms linger, the urgency eventually fades away, making it difficult to pursue new programs. “These crises are points where the system becomes flexible,” he said.
With this financing running out, some congressional budget proposals are putting these programs on the chopping block, like the department’s beloved Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program. The 2014 energy and water appropriations bill that passed the House in July includes an 81 percent cut for this program that invests in high-risk, high-reward energy technologies
Despite closer congressional scrutiny on the government checkbook and rebuffed attempts to pass emissions laws, Knobloch insisted that legislation is still the Obama administration’s ideal path for addressing climate change. He said he was optimistic that the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency legislation would make it from Capitol Hill to the White House. The Senate opened debate on the bill yesterday.
The Climate Action Plan, Knobloch concluded, is merely a starting point for a broader governmental approach to the warming planet. “Even what’s in the plan isn’t sufficient, ultimately,” he said.
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