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One on One with United States Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz
By Michael A. Fletcher
Jun 13, 2014, 15:52

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As U.S. energy secretary, Dr. Ernest Moniz is a central figure to the success of President Obama’s agenda. Moniz’s job is critical to growing the economy, enhancing national security, and protecting the environment. Moniz, a physicist, professor and Washington veteran who took office last year, is a proponent of the president’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.

He is also the Obama administration’s point person when it comes to maintaining the nuclear deterrent and reducing the nuclear danger, promoting American leadership in science and clean energy technology innovation, and cleaning up the nuclear waste that is a lasting legacy of the Cold War.

Before coming to Washington, Moniz was the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a faculty member since 1973. At MIT, he headed the Department of Physics and the Bates Linear Accelerator Center. Most recently, Dr. Moniz served as the founding Director of the MIT Energy Initiative and of the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.

During the final term of the Clinton Administration, Moniz was an Energy Department undersecretary, where he oversaw science and energy programs, led a comprehensive review of nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship, and served as the special negotiator for the disposition of Russian nuclear materials. From 1995 to 1997, he served as Associate Director for Science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President. In addition, Moniz has served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the Department of Defense Threat Reduction Advisory Committee, and the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

A Massachusetts native, Moniz earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Boston College, and a doctorate in theoretical physics from Stanford University. He also holds honorary degrees from the University of Athens, the University of Erlangen-Nurenberg, Michigan State University and Universidad Pontificia de Comillas.

USBE&IT recently talked to him about his policy priorities, as well as job opportunities for minorities in the energy sector. The conversation follows here:

USBE&IT: You have said energy efficiency is one of your top priorities as energy secretar. Why? And is this vision hard to rally people around?

Secretary Moniz: First, I want to say that we emphasize all of the above. Efficiency is one element of that. I made a special emphasis on efficiency very early on because it is pretty widely agreed that many of the nearest-term opportunities for making progress in terms of lower emissions, for example, comes through efficiency. In turn, a lot of the actions that one can take on energy efficiency pay for themselves with relatively short pay-back periods. That really is why we have a strong focus there.

This applies in many sectors. It applies to buildings of, course. Residential and commercial buldings use something like 70 percent of the electricity in the United States. With vehicles, you will recall that President Obama has put in place aggressive fuel efficiency standards that would require of 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025. Industry, quite frankly, tends to be ahead of the other sectors as the savings go right to the bottom line. So these are all opportunities. The way we approach them is varied.

Clearly, a lot of it is technology development. One of the real technology developments in the efficiency space that has been amazing is the continued cost reduction of LED lighting. You use about one sixth of the energy compared to incadescents and you have a 25,000-hour lifetime, versus 1000 hours. The costs have been dropping incredibly rapidly below $10 and in fact approaching a one-year payback period. We are responsible for efficiency standards for appliances. Cooling, heating, electric motors and the like.

They all are subject to cost-benefit analysis, to make sure there is a good payback from those increased standards. And yet another very different example is implementing the weatherization program where we go out and help less affluent people improve efficiency of their homes, save on heating bills. Those are just a few of the ways that we address efficiency.

USBE&IT: Are people initially excited by these ideas, or do they have to think about them first to understand their impact?

Secretary Moniz: I think it is a mix. But when you take something like the weatherization program I think people see the impact immediately, not only in reduced bills but also in comfort. I think on something like appicance standards, that tends to be not as visible to many consumers but nevertheless important. I think these appliances are saving money.

Something like the LED, I get pretty excited about it, at least. One of the things with the LED people notice is that with LEDs they are actually a light bulb, rather than a heat bulb. In vehicles, people notice very much when they are going to the pump a lot less frequently.

USBE&IT: In the early days of the Obama administration, there was a strong emphasis on renewable energy. Now the national conversation has shifted to the shale energy boom. Is the embrace of renewables being complicated by the shale energy boom?

Secretary Moniz: First of all, shale gas has been a major boom and boon, for sure. The shale gas revolution has had an enormous impact in enhancing our manufacturing capacity in the United States and creating lots of good jobs there. One of the estimates is that somewhere between $100 and $150 billion have been invested in new manufaturing capacity because of the shale gas boom. Now, those lower prices certainly have impacted other parts of the energy sector. They have had an impact on coal.

We’ve seen a lot of market-based shifts from coal to gas, with lower carbon dioxide emissions. Lower gas prices have had some impact on marginal nuclear plants, typically smaller plants. A few have closed. If you go to renewables, the extent to which gas prices fall, it can have an effect. However, we should not forget that over the past four to five years, during the shale gas boom, we have seen wind, solar and thermal double in the United States and we expect another doubling in the next five or so years.

USBE&IT: What is it going to take for the nation to shift to a mostly renewable energy portfolio?

Secretary Moniz: First of all, continued price reduction is very important for all the low-carbon technologies, so we will continue to try to drive cost reduction. Secondly, we do expect that we are going to continue on a pathway to lower emissions and so the zero-carbon options will become increasingly attractive there. But, third, some of the renewables—solar, for example—lend themselves very well to distributed energy which

I think is attractive to many people—roof-top solar, ect. And, of course, the commercial big-box roofs.Solar also has the attraction of tending to be maximal when the demand is highest. So it plays a very positive role in that sense in the whole electric grid system.

USBE&IT: What should students be doing to prepare themselves for careers in the energy sector?

Secretary Moniz: The acronym is STEM--science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I think STEM education is very central for the career aspirations of just about anybody. But certainly in the energy field STEM is critical. Whether it is for technicians to install solar systems, or for PhD researchers for the next new material and for everything in between, STEM familiarity is absolutely essential. That’s where I would say students should really focus their efforts.

USBE&IT: What about for getting more minority students into energy sector jobs, is the prescription the same?

Secretary Moniz: Again, STEM education is central. That is true for anyone and certainly for minorities.l think another thing for minorities in many cases—not in all cases, obviously—is exposure to the opportunities. The president likes to speak about ladders of opportunity into middle-class jobs. And I think there is a very strong case, certainly in these last years partly driven by the oil and gas revolutions in this country but also by the cutting-edge technologies that come into renewables and nuclear and often to efficiency as well, those areas have provided those ladders of opportunity. If you take the oil and gas business, for example, one of the things we started here at the Department of Energy was the Minorities in Energy Initiative, which includes an ambassadors program. Many of the ambassardors are themselves underrepresented minorities, but some are not.

For example, Jack Gerard, president and executive director of the American Petroleum Institute, is an ambassardor and he is dedicated to this issue of diversity. He is very dedicated to this issue because the oil and gas industry has huge manpower needs and womanpower needs over these next years and they need to attract more minorities to be able to fulfill them.

USBE&IT: What are the best sources of summer jobs and internships that lead to energy careers?

Secretary Moniz: First of all, with the energy companies themselves. They offer internships, ect. I might also add that the national laboratories have summer internship programs. Some are focused specifically on minorities. I will look into this: maybe there is something we can do with our Web site that could be a good point of contact for students.

USBE&IT: Our final question. Why did you want to be energy secretary. What about the job intrigued you?

Secretary Moniz: Well, a chance to serve is number one. The president is very convincing. Also, the Department of Energy has a set of missions that are areas that I have spent an awful lot of time on over a very long period of time. The department really provides the foundation for the American physical science research enterprise.

In addition, advancing clean energy policies is something that I have been working on at MIT very intensively for the last decade. Also, the department is really the lead agency for nuclear security. This department has some tremendously important national missions. And they align with the president’s priorities. Most of all, the president asked and I was delighted to say yes.
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