Energy Research for a Clean Energy Future—a Conversation with Former Obama Administration Energy Secretary Dr. Ernest Moniz

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<p><strong>Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a “Fireside Chat” at the October National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, NV.</strong></p>

Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a “Fireside Chat” at the October National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, NV.


Whereas the Trump Administration has proposed slashing the U.S. Department of Energy’s research and development budget in half in FY 2018, Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz counters that expanded investment in energy innovation is essential to meet global climate goals by 2050 and for the U.S. to capture its share of the global clean energy technology market. Secretary Moniz addressed these issues in an interview recorded at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, NV on October 13, 2017.

John J. Berger: What should be the nation’s top energy research and development priorities in the context of accelerating the deep decarbonization that we speak of?

Ernest Moniz: Well, I don’t have one priority because that would be counter to my philosophy. There will be very different low-carbon solutions in different countries [and] in different parts of our country. So the U.S. needs to sustain a pretty broad portfolio of research and development. Clearly there are absolutely critical areas, however. I strongly support programs like DARPA-e, that I think have been very flexible and responsive to good proposals. The question DARPA-e poses is, what’s got a chance to make it to the marketplace?

It’s no big mystery, but [energy] storage remains an absolutely critical technology for both mobile and stationary applications, and in particular for the stationary applications. We have to look at and understand the value proposition of storage at multiple time scales. Right now, if you look at some of the storage installations, let’s say with PV farms and the like, it’s a couple hours of storage typically. That is important, but what about storage for a day [and] for longer time periods? That will have a big impact on how the system is designed, what is the backup power, and the like. That is a really important area where there is inadequate R&D.

JB: What are your thoughts about the potential for concentrating solar power as a suitable source of intermediate-term energy storage?

EM: They may be talking say ten hours of storage, which is another scale. In the right places, CSP [concentrating solar power] can be very interesting, but it’s got to be places that have extremely clear atmospheres and direct insolation. It doesn’t have the same flexibility as PV, but in those places, it can be great. We are still learning about some of the mechanical challenges in systems of that type. The ones that the loan program funded are now working through some of the initial issues, and so it’s looking promising. Storage, in general, and storage for different time scales, is critical. I think we have a long way to go still on system design, which is partly technical and partly systems engineering, for the electric grid. And a lot of that activity is going to be on the distribution and behind the meter’s side. Again, business models will also be critical here. It is a net of things and the full integration with the grid.

I think in the transportation side, obviously, we should continue on the battery development and get the costs down., I think there can be an enormous pay-off, but lots of challenges still, in drop- in fuels. Drop-in fuels have got so many attractions, including aircraft and the like. High energy density.

JB: And you’re thinking . . . biofuels?

EM: Biofuels would be an obvious feed stock, but again, the Holy Grail, where do we establish a roughly 25 billion dollars a year center. The Holy Grail I mentioned in the [Fireside Chat], CO2 plus sunlight plus water has all the ingredients of a hydrocarbon. Obviously, we can do it. It’s done in the laboratory in very small amounts, but how do you design that ultimately to be a reasonable cost, scalable product? That’s got a lot of science yet to be done there.

<p><strong>Integrating Innovation” was the theme of the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, NV at which Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz spoke. </strong> </p>

Integrating Innovation” was the theme of the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, NV at which Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz spoke.


JB: Are you sanguine about a non-fossil fuel chemistry for industry, based upon hydrocarbons that come from plant materials?

EM: For fuels?

JB: I am thinking for plastics, and for the chemical industry.

EM: Ah-hah, well, it’s done. The question is scaling and the costs. And again there can be engineering of plants that can be maybe more appropriate, but we also know that there will be issues to be addressed when one is getting into very large-scale plant modifications. Really having a hard look, and developing less expensive approaches to a hydrogen economy, could be very important, particularly in the industrial sector, although it could spill over, of course, to the transportation sector in terms of fuel cells. Another area which is really important and where too little has been done is on carbon capture and sequestration.

JB: Primarily for concentrated streams of CO2, as opposed to using it for, let’s say, coal power plants?

EM: I think it could be for a coal power plant, but I do think the lower hanging fruit— the relatively high pressure, relatively high purity [CO2] streams from various industrial process— is a good place to start. You’d have to go beyond that eventually to get into the massive amounts of CO2, but yes, in fact, that’s right.

JB: Are there any practical, promising means for removing CO2 from the atmosphere that make sense to you as a physicist?

EM: Well, I think, again, one more example of something that is obviously done, but I have not seen anything to convince me that the cost is not many hundreds of dollars per ton. And then you still have the utilization and sequestration issue in addition. As I said, we have got to do some pretty fundamental research on some of these large-scale [carbon] management options. We are going to need them if we are going to hit a very deep decarbonization.

JB: How much do you think the nation should be now spending on its clean energy R&D, in contrast to what we are now spending?

EM: DOE, by our counting— and the counting is a little bit of an art form, what you count and what you don’t count— we ended up with a scoring of $4.8 billion of DOE clean energy R&D, and so the doubling of that was much more in the ballpark of what was called for. The government as a whole, we felt, was spending around $6 billion. So doubling that, that’s in the ballpark of what the American Energy Innovation Council has been talking about for years. So we are talking about doubling, but that’s not how I would do the policy. You’ve got to build a portfolio up from the bottom. But, if you are doing that with the idea that the budget is roughly twice as big as it is now, that influences how you would build that portfolio.

I’ll give you a clear example in one program, nuclear. With the current budget of nuclear R&D at DOE, you’ve got things you’ve got to do, and you do do, so things relevant to life extension of reactors and the materials research for that, etc, different kinds of fuels with safety characteristics, etc, etc. What you cannot fit in there, because it’s probably $500 [or] $600 million a year required, if you want to be serious about developing an advanced nuclear fuel cycle which has some better characteristics—waste and the like— you just can’t fit it in a total budget of $500 million. So, that is what I mean. If you’ve got more space, you can think about a different kind of portfolio, and in balancing those long-term vs. shorter term projects.

For more of Secretary Moniz’s views on energy innovation, deep decarbonization, and U.S. energy R&D, see The U.S. Under-Invests in Energy Innovation Asserts Former Obama Administration Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.


John J. Berger, PhD. ( is an energy and environmental policy specialist who has produced ten books on climate, energy, and natural resource topics. He is the author of Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to the Climate Crisis, and Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science, and is at work on a new book about climate solutions.

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