It’s an exaggeration to say that the future of human civilization depends on Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s charm and persuasiveness. But not by much. She has become the face of President Biden’s climate and clean-energy push – in the last two weeks, alone, she’s been to Houston, West Virginia, and Las Vegas, making the case for why Congress needs to pass the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion infrastructure package that would re-tool America for the end of fossil fuels and the beginning of the climate crisis. Passage of the legislation will make or break Biden’s promise of a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035, as well as his commitment to achieve net-zero carbon pollution by 2050. If this legislation fails, or, more likely, gets watered down and neutered, you can say goodbye to any chance of meaningful federal action on climate in the U.S. for at least a few more years. And given the urgency of the climate crisis, those are a few years we don’t have to waste.
Granholm, the two-term former governor of Michigan, is an unusual choice for secretary of energy. Traditionally, it has been a job held either by hardcore scientists or party hacks. Under Obama, the position was held by Steven Chu, who had a Nobel Prize in Physics, and then Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist. George W. Bush’s first pick for the job, Spencer Abraham, got the post as a consolation after losing his Senate seat in Michigan. His successor, Samuel Bodman, at least had an engineering degree from MIT, but he made his name as CEO of Fidelity Investments. Trump’s pick, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, was widely viewed as a boy-toy for the fossil fuel industry.
Granholm is neither hack nor scientist. She is a lawyer by training, accustomed to reading people, not periodic charts. Among other things, she guided Michigan through the collapse and rebirth of the auto industry, and knows how to work a room full of panicked union workers and hob-nob with the fossil fuel boys (Granholm and her husband recently dined with Sen. Joe Manchin and his wife on Manchin’s houseboat). And unlike her predecessors Chu and Moniz, who never learned media-speak and were about as charismatic as a spinning electron, Granholm is good on camera and can connect with average Americans who don’t speak science.
Still, Granholm’s crisp, can-do manner feels like a generational makeover for an agency with deep roots in the Cold War. The DOE grew out of the old Atomic Energy Commission, founded in 1946 largely to manage the nuclear weapons stored at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Today, the DOE is a Kafkaesque empire with 17 national labs, 13,100 federal employees, and 115,000 contract workers scattered across the country. Its primary job is not energy research, as its name would suggest, but maintaining America’s nuclear stockpile and cleaning up the toxic mess left behind by the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Of the DOE’s $39.5 billion budget, almost two-thirds goes to the care and cleanup of nukes.
But right now, nukes are the least of Granholm’s problems. Her main task is to re-assure rust-belt Americans of the bright horizon of a clean-energy future. She is out there carrying the flag for Biden’s American Jobs Plan, otherwise known as the infrastructure bill, which may well turn out to be make-or-break legislation both for Biden’s presidency and for the Earth’s climate. I talked with Granholm about the prospects for Biden’s initiative, her trip down into a coal mine with Joe Manchin, and how to create the political will to address the climate crisis.
Let’s start with the big picture. The climate crisis is often described by scientists and activists and journalists as an existential threat to human civilization. Do you agree with that?
In what sense?
Well, all you have to do is look at what’s happening as we speak in the West with these temperatures out of control. There will be no doubt record temperatures throughout the summer causing wildfires. Obviously [it’s] not just in the U.S., it’s across the planet; not just to the human species, but to wildlife. So, yes, it’s an existential threat.
And how does that change how you think about this politically?
I think there is a sense of urgency that is unparalleled inside the administration. Certainly inside of our office right now. I’m looking at the billboard right next to my desk, a whiteboard. On it, every single day, I write the number of days that we have in the first term of this administration, which is all we’re guaranteed. As of today, it’s 902. There is just a clear sense of an absolute imperative to move.
So let’s talk about that. I mean, obviously the thing that’s on everyone’s mind right now is where this infrastructure package is going and how that’s going to play out. I read this morning a tweet from Senator Ron Wyden that said, “….what this boils down to is the fact that Republicans simply don’t want to combat the climate crisis in a comprehensive way.” Is that true?
I think there are some that don’t want to, but I think there are some who are there, too. I mean, I think about the Energy Act of 2020, which got really big bipartisan support, where every manner of clean-energy technology was voted on by Republicans and Democrats. And it’s the spirit of that that really informs the American Jobs Plan and climate portions of the American Jobs Plan. I mean, in that Energy Act of 2020, you had extensions of solar and wind credits at the same time as you have investments in CCS [carbon capture and storage], hydrogen, wind demonstration projects, a focus on making sure we have the supply chain for batteries for the electric vehicle. All of that. And all of that is contemplated certainly within the American Jobs Plan.
So you think there are Republicans out there in the Senate and House who are willing to take meaningful action on the climate crisis?
Yes, I do. It will depend on what the overall package looks like, of course, and we’re going to see about how this goes. But many of the Republicans, at least on the Senate committee that I report to, coming from fossil fuel states, they don’t deny that climate change is happening. They just want to make sure that their people are given an opportunity in this new world. And so that’s one of the reasons why the president has focused on making sure we have this intergovernmental work group on coal and power-plant communities — and embedded throughout the American Jobs Plan is this commitment that 40 percent of the benefits will go to communities that are either communities of color or communities on the front line of the bad side of the energy ecosystem, having suffered from disproportionately negative impacts from fossil fuel pollution, and communities that are facing this transition. And I think the Republicans and Democrats who represent fossil fuel communities appreciate the sentiment, that we need to bring all communities along in this fight.
I want to say explicitly that it’s not just Republicans that are a problem here. Also Democrats. You went to West Virginia last week to see Joe Manchin?
Last week I went to Nevada, the week before that went to West Virginia, and then I went to Houston before that. People who are in fossil fuel communities have often complained, “Yeah, you say you’re going to train me to be a solar installer, but the wages aren’t that high and there’s no jobs that have come. You can’t train me for something that doesn’t exist.”
So the whole point is to say the American Jobs Plan is really going to invest in job creation in these communities. We want them to be union jobs. We want them to be high-paying jobs. We want them to be commensurate financially with the jobs that they may have left behind. We’re going to need people to build the offshore and onshore wind turbines. We’re going to need people to build the supplies to the offshore and onshore wind turbines and solar panels and batteries and the whole supply chain to the batteries — the anode, the cathode, the separator material, the electrolyte, including responsible extraction of critical minerals in this country. We want them to build the vehicles and the charging stations, and we want them to install them. And we know that we need sheet-metal workers and electricians and operating engineers, you name it, the full suite of jobs that are in this clean-energy sector because the products are so varied.
But there is a lot of distrust about that, right? I wrote a book about the coal industry 15 years ago and Democrats and other well-intentioned people were saying the same thing then. And basically nothing has changed.
Yeah, because there hasn’t been a focused commitment and a decision made to do investment in these communities. It’s not just going to happen without there being some significant partnership with the communities and with the private sector, to incentivize location decisions, to do place-based strategies.
We have had such a hands-off posture on our economy that we’ve just allowed things to go, globally, obviously, to the cheapest places. And that means China wins. So are we going to, as a nation, decide that’s not going to be good enough for our citizens? Do we have an industrial strategy that means that we will partner and strategically locate investments in communities that for 100 years have powered us and can be powering us for the next 100 years by using clean energy? So that’s the difference, I think. Now, you’ve got an administration that is focused on creating the supply chains and the manufacturing and the location decisions, and putting money behind it.
I feel like I was asked to be secretary of energy because I was the governor of a state that produced a fossil-fuel-dependent product — the vehicle, the internal combustion engine. And we had to go through this transition. And now you see the big auto companies are making, you know, 100 percent clean electric-car commitments and are investing in batteries because they made that transition. But they had to go through bankruptcy, and the suppliers had to go through bankruptcy, to get there. And now, obviously, the coal industry is going through bankruptcies. So we want to let people know, if you diversify, if you have a strategy to help your people and your businesses move to build — in our case, it was to build car 2.0, but for these fossil fuel communities, it can be energy 2.0. We want them to see themselves in the future of energy and not just despairing about the past.
So tell me about your trip to West Virginia. You went into a coal mine with Joe Manchin. What was that like?
Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever been inside of a coal mine….
I have, a number of times…
Then you know, it is an experience and you have to really respect people who do that in and out. And it’s part of their DNA and part of their family history. And I think the reason why Joe Manchin wanted me to visit the coal mine is to get a real sense of the DNA of people who, for so long, have done this on our behalf, on the nation’s behalf; to appreciate the difficulty of the job and to get a sense [of] the geography and the topography and the existing industrial assets, what West Virginia could be looking at.
So we visited the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is one of the 17 national labs. The leader of NETL is Dr. Brian Anderson. He is the person we put in charge of this intergovernmental work group on coal and power-plant communities, because his father was a coal miner, his grandfather was a coal miner, and now he is a Ph.D., head of a national laboratory. So he understands the importance of new ways of looking at energy. For example, they are taking carbon and coal and not burning it, but using it for other products. So one of the things that he was showing us is a substitute for silicon for computer chips that is made out of carbon and is more efficient. He showed us a process that they are working on to create clean hydrogen, replacing this carbon-intensive hydrogen process called Haber-Bosch with microwave reactor technology.
Bottom line is that the hope that technology brings to communities that have been largely dependent on fossil fuels is real, and we just have to take it to scale.
So what’s it going to take to get Senator Manchin behind this infrastructure package?
Well, I think, you know, he has to make sure that his people are taken care of, that his people are not just taken care of in the sense of a handout. He doesn’t want that. [That] they see themselves in the future of clean energy. I mean, you’d have to ask him. But my guess is that he would want to make sure that some of the investments that are identified in the American Jobs Plan, that 40 percent commitment, that people in Appalachia see that.
And the great news is that there is so much to offer in these areas. One of the provisions of the American Jobs Plan is this 15 demonstration projects in clean hydrogen. That would be an amazing thing, because there’s billions of dollars behind this. It is totally forward looking, future looking, strategies for baseload power [the reliable, minimum amount of electricity that the power grid needs to operate]. It would be terrific to see some of that in Appalachia. So, my guess is, if I were him, I would be asking for that. He represents a community that is hurting. And having done that myself, having represented a community that was on its knees, I know how you feel when you look into the eyes of people who feel like they have no hope and the rug has been pulled out from under them through no fault of their own.
I want to ask you one more thing about coal, about the coal industry. My own view is that a stable climate – and by that I mean, hitting the net zero emissions by 2050 — is incompatible with burning coal for energy, no matter what technology you use to do it. Do you think I’m wrong?
I think … First of all, the administration, in its efforts, even at the G7, in pushing the G7 to stop financing coal plants, [this] is a demonstration that this administration really wants to move away from coal, too, although without moving away from those workers. And so, there’s a lot of talk about what technologies could actually make coal be net zero. Obviously there’s a lot of experimenting happening with carbon capture and sequestration. However, you’d want to make sure that the investments were sound investments and that the market wasn’t heading in a way that it wasn’t a good use of money. So I think there just has to be an understanding that there has to be a transition, and the transition has to give people an opportunity.
Let’s talk about the Clean Energy Standard [a requirement that an increasing amount of electricity comes from zero-carbon sources], which is a centerpiece of the American Jobs Plan. It is your view that the CES is indispensable to fulfilling President Biden’s climate and energy goals?
Yes. I think we need it, and I know the president and his team are fighting for that to be included.
Do you have hope that it will be included in a bipartisan bill?
Well, I know that the bill that most people are looking at is the bill authored by Sen. Tina Smith, which is a really thoughtful way of doing it, where it [meets] states where they are and has them ratchet up certain percentages over the next few years. So I hope people view that, combined with the investments, as an opportunity and not as a threat. And that’s really what we’re trying to work on. We want people to see that there’s a $23 trillion global market for the products that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And you need to have states and businesses see themselves as players who can catch a corner of that market. And the way you do that is by creating both demand-side strategies and supply-side strategies. And, of course, the CES is a demand-side strategy.
If the CES doesn’t make it into a bipartisan bill, can it pass through budget reconciliation?
We’ll have to see.
You’re supposed to know that!
Well, I would be buying a lottery ticket today if I could tell you that. But I think we feel like we have a good shot.
And what is the biggest hang up for that, in your view?
Making sure we have the right number votes.
Yeah, well, of course. But aren’t there some questions about the legality of CES in the budget reconciliation process?
Oh, I think that the CES can pass on a budget reconciliation, because I think it will be tied to state grants to make that happen.
So let’s talk about R&D. Bill Gates has said that to get to net zero by 2050, we need an energy miracle. Others, including climate scientist Michael Mann, say that is nonsense, we have all the technology we need right now, we just need the political will to deploy it.
I think both are true. I think we have a lot of what we need, but in order to get the political will, we need to make sure that we’re deploying clean-energy solutions across the country in [ways] that make sense for [different regions]. So, for example, we’ve got 17 labs. We’re spearheading all these innovations. This $180 billion investment that the American Jobs Plan puts toward investing means that we can deploy — and we should deploy — all manner of solutions. We shouldn’t be ruling actual clean-energy, net-zero carbon emission technologies out. So, technologies that we have high hopes for, we’ve got to continue to prove out. So we need baseload power, and that means nuclear. But next-generation nuclear may produce less waste. Next-generation nuclear may not look like the current generation — it may be modular, it may be smaller. And those solutions might be more palatable in portions of the country where the full suite of wind and solar might get more resistance.
But I will say that even in the communities that are fossil fuel communities, like in the Dakotas, Montana, et cetera, they are all in on wind. They are putting those wind turbines up at a great speed. We now have to invest in the transmission to ensure we get the power to load centers. So, all manner of technologies. And I really do like hydrogen. I think it’s a really very interesting solution, and there are communities in this country that are maybe more conservative that see hydrogen as an acceptable form of technology that they would like to see invested in their state.
So I think you can do both — you can do vast deployment of wind and solar and geothermal, which we don’t do enough of, and hydro power. And you can also invest in the technologies of the future that other countries are also asking the United States to help with, like, hydrogen and CCUS [carbon capture, utilization, and storage]
We talked about coal. But when President Biden talks about a 100 percent clean electricity grid by 2035, what does that mean for the future of natural gas? Big gas states like Pennsylvania are hugely important to Democrats.
Well, I’m interested in two things on natural gas. Clearly we would love to see it 100 percent clean — and what does clean mean? Can you remove methane? Can you remove CO2 from natural gas? So, you know, this part of the American Jobs Plan also has demonstration projects in carbon capture. I know carbon capture is not the favorite of some in the clean-energy world. However, if it gets us to net zero — and frankly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that we will not meet 100 percent net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 without carbon capture and sequestration on natural gas. So decarbonizing the fossil fuel industry is necessary to meet the climate change goals as well. And so really being aggressive about methane, methane leakage, methane flaring and combustion, as well as carbon capture, is one solution. Unabated natural gas — not so much. But many regions of the country, as well as the natural gas industry, are looking for solutions, too, because they think that the world is asking for those, for natural gas to be decarbonized as well.
Yeah, I mean, obviously, carbon capture with natural gas is expensive and complex.
Yes, it is. But I will say, though, that carbon capture technology, from building it and maintaining it and storing emissions in the ground and building the pipelines for it, all of that creates big job potential, and especially in parts of the country that have historically relied on fossil industry jobs.
Right. But is that a reason to do it?
It’s a reason to do it if it works, if it de-carbonizes.
Even if it’s expensive and risky and complicated?
Well, but that’s what the demonstration projects are about, is taking something to scale so you can reduce the cost and work out whatever the hiccups are in order to make it work.
Right now, many progressive Democrats are saying “no climate, no deal.” Meaning if there’s not climate in the infrastructure package, they won’t vote for the bill. But it’s not clear to me what “climate” means in this context. In your view, what needs to be in this infrastructure package for it to be a meaningful climate bill?
I think there needs to be investment in the grid. There’s $100 billion in there for investment and to increase capacity and resilience in the transmission grid. There needs to be these demonstration projects we talked about. There needs to be a clean energy standard. There needs to be the investment in electrification of the transportation sector. And that means to reduce the cost at point-of-purchase for electric vehicles as well as [building] charging stations. It means the commitments to these other technologies, including research and development, which are now part of the research and development that has been spun off in the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which allows for funding to come to the DOE labs to continue doing research on innovative technologies, whether it’s next-generation solar material or materials for wind turbines or hydrogen or next-generation geothermal. I think that’s what people are hoping to get into the final infrastructure bill.
A lot of people I know believe this is basically our last, best chance to deal with climate crisis. Do you feel that way?
Yes. We cannot screw this up. We have to get this passed. And this is why the president has such bold goals — 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and net zero by 2050. Those are big, bold, hairy, audacious goals. And this is the moment to get them passed. We need to deploy, deploy, deploy, and innovate, innovate, innovate. And we need to put these investments, at least 40 percent of them, into communities that feel like they have been left behind. And if we do that, then we will do right by the country and right by the planet.