If I Were Secretary of Energy

(Warning/TLDR : You can’t fix the DOE in 1000 words)

Apparently, some corner of the Twitterverse has nominated me to be energy secretary. As an Australian who is not yet a naturalized citizen, I’m not eligible (I’d be 15th in line to the presidency, so no go), but it’s worth running the thought experiment of what I would do if I ran the DOE — only in this experiment, the world will be perfect and sweeping change won’t be prevented at every turn by a bad Senate set-up. That’s because the reality of the pace of climate change is that we need extraordinary speed to tackle the problem — like the speed with which America launched the Arsenal of Democracy, an industrial effort to make critical munitions for WW2.

Rather than secretary of energy, I’d prefer a bigger role. If efforts to curb climate change are only housed within DOE, we won’t succeed at the scale required. I’d like a job that doesn’t yet exist, analogous to the role of Henry Knudsen in the Arsenal of Democracy. Knudsen was an industrialist who was critical in the Office of Production Management and a member of the National Defense Advisory Commission (like him, I’d be willing to take that job for $1 per year). My job, perhaps as Climate Liaison, would be part of the National Climate Defense Commission, and a key member of an Electrification Production board. The climate defense commission would quarterback the finance and logistics economy-wide. The Electrification Production board would figure out how to ramp up industry to make all of the electric vehicles, heat pumps, batteries, solar cells, wind turbines, load centers, nuclear reactors and long distance transmission lines we need.

Given the right resources, and political will to match, we could be mostly decarbonized by 2030–2035, and close to pushing the very ambitious schedule required at this point to hit a 1.5 degree C (2.7 F) climate target. The climate office would coordinate the required response that included finance (OMB, FED), the Electrification Production board (scale up and production), the Bureau of Lands Management, the DOE (new science projects and new technology), the EPA (regulatory), and the department of housing (again, deployment). I’m ready for that job!

But back in the universe where we have to address climate change with the offices and departments that already exist, let me describe a plan for the DOE.

DOE artists-in-residence

The first thing I would do is hire a team of DOE artists in residence. We need ideas and creativity. These artists would fulfill a role similar to the NASA art program that began in 1962 which was critical to filling the American imagination with the possibilities of space travel, the adventure, the future, the wonder. In the 50 years since Earth Day, an enormous number of column-inches have been written about our deteriorating environment (and more recently deteriorating climate) but not enough about visions for what success looks like for humanity. The DOE artists-in-residence would go to work showing us what the future of cleaner electrified building stock would look like, how much cleaner our streets and air will be with electric cars and new electric transit modes, including electric flight. We’d see verdant pictures of the future of regenerative agriculture and an even more productive carbon sequestering food system that also makes more space for wildness and national park and recreation areas. You might find it odd that the first thing I’d do at DOE is make art, but this is critical, we need a shared vision of where we are going, one of abundance and success and of the U.S. winning, if we are to get the popular buy-in and acceptance we need to address climate change in earnest and at scale.

Split the two-headed hydra of the DOE

The second thing I would do is fix a long-standing conflict in the Department of Energy. Currently, out of its $32 billion budget, only $2.3B is spent on energy independence and innovation, not all of which is carbon free. $5.5B is spent on science, only a fraction of which is spent on near-term solutions. The lion’s share ($23.7B) is spent to modernize our nuclear security and stockpile. In other words, the biggest piece of the DOE has nothing to do with domestic energy supply, and only about 10% of the DOE budget is being spent on technologies and solutions that are really going to impact on the timeframe we have to address climate change. If you recognize that energy is most of the problem with climate change (as the data tell us), and it needs a huge amount of focus, you’d like it not to be the bastard child of a split-personality weapons organization.

“If you recognize that energy is most of the problem with climate change, and it needs a huge amount of focus, you’d like it not to be the bastard child of a weapons organization.”

The DOE is like the Hulk. ARPA-e and EERE are the mild-mannered and solution-oriented Bruce Banner, and the rest of time the DOE is big, lumbering and destructive to its own cause. I’d split this two-headed hydra into a Dept. of Energy and a Dept. of Nuclear Security. This will ruffle feathers, but I stand by the idea that we need focus, not a schizophrenic agency that doesn’t know whether it’s looking after aging cold war weapon systems or securing the future of a green planet with clean energy. Speaking in round figures, this new DOE should have a budget of $10B — all focused on energy systems and national energy independence while getting to zero net carbon. This would triple the amount the DOE spends on necessary domestic energy supply and demand technologies and issues. I’m not saying don’t fund the other side of the DOE; the nuclear security component is critical, particularly if we are to build trust in the peaceful domestic use of nuclear energy and the management of waste.

Reform R&D funding to encourage innovation

Some $5B in the DOE budget goes toward science and national labs. Science is good, and National Labs are good, but they shouldn’t be a mating pair. I would reform where this R&D money goes so that it isn’t only earmarked for national labs, but allows small businesses, start-ups, and other innovators to compete for more funding for near-term climate solutions. Before WWII, research and development in the US was largely done by small independent companies and industrial firms like Bell labs, which were agile and high-performing. After WWII, spurred by Vannevar Bush’s `Science the Endless Frontier’, a new apparatus of national labs and research universities was created, to discover new science and turn it into engineered innovations. It was a great idea at the time, and much good science has come out of it, but it has become too dominant at this time when we need boots-on-the-ground solutions. Because much of this infrastructure, particularly the national labs, was built out at a time of the Cold War, it’s out of date, solving problems that aren’t that relevant any more, with labs that aren’t always located where people now want to live, work and innovate. I’d like the DOE to allow more of the work that the US government’s science agencies do to be done outside of national labs and universities, to enable the nimble teams in start-ups and small companies to be able to compete for research funding. We need to encourage the best and the brightest, with the biggest ideas. The whole country could be a national lab, distributed like the Internet, and we could democratize science funding and have more people participate in the ideas and innovation of the nation.

Currently, there is a culture clash between how the DOD and the DOE fund research in the national interest. The first agency offers its performers a modest 7% of profit above and beyond the costs strictly required to perform the work, recognizing that this research is real work and the businesses who do it should see a small profit from it (although in reality most of them actually spend this on patenting and legal fees related to the work). The second agency does the exact opposite, requiring small businesses to contribute “cost share,” typically 10–20% of the total project cost! If we want our best and brightest solving the problems of clean energy, let’s motivate them, not tax them to work.

80% Scale, 20% Science

There’s currently a divided opinion in the DOE as to whether we should focus on science or scale for fast climate solutions. To keep us on target for beating 2 degrees warming, I would focus first on scale and deployment, with a heaping dollop of research on top. Let’s think of this as a 80:20 rule. 80% spend money on improving the things we know work and lowering their cost and increasing their performance. 20% on swing for the fences big science and engineering challenges that have the potential to change the game. Guarantee success with the 80, and bet on big upside with the 20. Foremost (the 80), this means all things electrical, all things renewable. And while it may not sound as exciting as “miracle solutions,” in the near term DOE effort needs to focus on the mundane — our homes, streets, and businesses. We need to electrify our appliances, vehicles and buildings, and network them all to balance our loads and make a more robust and resilient grid that provides lower cost energy to all. I would be setting targets for lots of mini-moonshots: $0.50/W rooftop solar, $0.03c/kWh wind onshore and $0.06 offshore. Air source heat pumps with COP’s of 4 in cold climates. Batteries with a storage cost of $0.05c/kWh that will work for 20 years. 40% efficiency scalable photovoltaic cells. Grid controls and protocols that seamlessly balance all of the loads. EERE would be focused on all of these near term technologies that we largely already have, but all of which need to become easier to use, easier to integrate into our houses and the world.

Change the conversation from fossil fuels

Next, I would expand the scope of the Energy Information Agency. The EIA, which was made a separate agency of the DOE at the conception of the agencies for reasons of independence, has done a great job of keeping and recording energy data. I’d give the EIA a new mandate to model successful, detailed scenarios of our energy supply that are compatible with 2 degree climate targets. I’d ask the EIA to redefine the US energy system not so much in terms of primary energy as defined by fossil fuels, but by end use energy needs and the inefficiencies in meeting those needs. The terms of the energy conversation are written by fossil fuels and this is embedded all the way down to how we express our energy data. Right now primary energy, and the way we define efficiencies of renewables are on terms defined by fossil fuels. Let’s level that playing field. In the best version of itself that I can imagine, the EIA plays a role similar to the Wartime Production Board of WWII that in the publication “Wartime Production Achievements and the Reconversion Outlook” spent considerable effort modeling out the effects of the transformation not only into a wartime economy, but even more importantly the reconversion outlook back into the peacetime economy. The EIA can play a critical role with data and modeling of providing blueprints for the conversion of the economy to clean, largely electrified and with lower energy costs for everyone. I would request that by mid 2021 they will have completed the report “Electrification Production Achievements and the Conversion Outlook to a Clean Economy” or something to that effect. All communications of the EIA should be expressed as a function of where we are at versus 1.5 and 2 degree climate targets so there is climate context for every headline — — this is an antidote to the greenwashing of corporate America as they make vague gestures that are unmeasurable.

If I can only get one thing to happen at EIA however, it is to change the units of all of their publications. Right now we talk about everything in British Thermal Units (BTU’s), a unit literally defined to talk about coal heating water — — useful for and defined in large part by thermal machines that burn fossil fuels. Going forward we should publish all EIA work in kWh. We can’t use the language of the oppressor if we are to foment the revolution.

Mandate and money for fusion and fission

As regards the big science that DOE does, I’d give more mandate and money for fusion (combining atoms), and yes, fission (splitting atoms). Both can be done safely, both are experiencing great progress, and both can be enormous contributors to our climate solutions. The energy secretary needs to be engaged with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a way that shortens the timelines and lowers the cost of bringing new technologies to market. America does not need nuclear to meet its energy and climate goals, but that is not true of every country in the world. The tenure of the next energy secretary will be the tenure where the US either cements itself as a leader in peaceful nuclear energy technologies, or surrenders that crown to China, or Russia, or South Korea or Japan. We should aim to lead the world.

You can’t “efficiency” your way to zero

Next, I would change the department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to the department of Electrification and Renewable Energy. Why? The time is long past when efficiency measures will work to address climate change. We need to be at carbon zero, and you can’t “efficiency” your way to zero. Efficiency is good, and I won’t discourage important work on more efficient insulation materials and machines etc., but we need transformation. We can no longer have any new fossil fuel-based technology. This includes investing in carbon sequestration, which I don’t believe will work economically at scale; the amount of CO2 that humans emit each year is as much tonnage of material as every other human activity, as much as all of our mining, manufacturing and agriculture, combined. Sequestering that much carbon just isn’t going to happen on the timeframe we need. It’s cheaper to not make carbon in the first place, by electrifying everything and powering it with renewables and nuclear.

“The amount of CO2 that humans emit each year is as much tonnage of material as every other human activity combined. Sequestering that much carbon just isn’t going to happen on the timeframe we need.”

So the new Department of Electrification and Renewable Energy would focus on the things we know we need to do to transform the infrastructure: electrification of vehicles, improving batteries, lightweighting our vehicle fleets. Electrification of buildings needs to happen fast, and I’d focus on increasing the efficiency of heat pumps for space and water heating and cooling, including turning it into a shiftable load and giant battery; and developing the control systems for electrified homes and a larger, more complicated grid,

The difficult bits to decarbonize

After that, we would need to decarbonize the more difficult parts of our emissions. I’m confident that with scale, cost reduction and integration, we have most of the technology we need for 80% of our emissions. The last 20% is hard, though, and includes agriculture, emissions of refrigerants, land use, cement, steel, aluminum, the polymer industry, paper and pulp industry, and other things critical to our way of life. The DOE runs a small program that does bandwidth studies of industry and how efficient they can become. I think this is an incredible start to a much more powerful idea that I would get behind — scoping not only efficiency measures for these industries, but ways we can turn the industries into assets in the modern infrastructure that can shift loads, become batteries, and otherwise have benefits to the larger energy system. I’d also create a dedicated department of biological materials. Either we will build a competitor to the existing highly emitting polymer industry by using biology to make a precursor or feedstock for a green plastics industry, or even better we’ll harness biology in even more productive ways to make a plethora of materials that will sequester carbon as they also provide us better products and higher performance. Advanced timber construction of multi-story buildings that are a carbon sink is just one possibility.

Reform regulations that favor fossil fuels (FERC you)

There is a little appreciated office that has extraordinary influence over our energy system — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC does not sit within the DOE, but If I were secretary of the DOE I would seek to work very closely with FERC because, as the DOE Solar office already knows, it is the soft costs that dominate the costs of solar at this point. Soft costs are regulatory costs and non-hardware costs. Utility scale solar routinely generates at under 3c/kWh, but frequently ends up costing the consumer 15c/kWh or more. Some of this is the real cost of transmission and distribution infrastructure, but a lot of it is regulatory burden, billing costs, and other inefficiencies built into the American regulated utility system. We will do more to lower the costs of electricity — we will need to deliver 3x what we do now to get to net zero carbon — by fixing regulations, building codes, and market rules than we will by lowering the cost of hardware.

Zero-emissions mandate, no tricky carbon accounting allowed.

There is also the issue of the relationship between DOE and EPA. This needs to be stronger than ever. The previous products of their relationship are well known, but no longer ambitious enough. We all know Energy Star as the efficient appliance program, which has been reduced to a blue and white label that you ignore as you decide which refrigerator fits in the space you have in your kitchen. We’d be better served by an electrification appliance standard that certifies appliances that are not only efficient, but can inherently engage in demand response and storage, and that don’t burn any fossil fuels at all and use natural or zero emission refrigerants. The other program we all know of is the CAFE standards, which is the other label you ignore that is stuck to the window of the sports car you really want to buy when you are purchasing a minivan. California is getting closer to getting it right. We should be setting a date after which you can only have completely zero-emission vehicles. The size or efficiency of that zero emission vehicle is much less important. Let’s stop calling it a CAFE standard and call it what it needs to be: a zero-emission mandate.

The DOE’s booze problems

A joke within the Department of Energy is that it has two booze problems. The usual booze problem is well understood. The “Booz problem” is a problem not unique to the DOE, and unfortunately all too typical of the U.S. government. In a fever dream of small government ideology the government decided to outsource much of the contracting and contract management components to companies like Booz Allen Hamilton. They have good people, for the most part, but they are expensive and they have too much process, and at this point it costs the DOE about $1 to spend about $1. Just having good public servants doing this job would improve the accounting and lower the costs of administration of the activities of the DOE. I’ve probably just made enemies for life.

The Department of (youthful) Energy.

When NASA launched the Apollo program the average age of its engineers was 26. I am an enormous believer in giving young people more responsibility to take more risks and control more resources earlier in their careers. Our ossified agencies have been optimized over the years by careerism, including the university research sector and its tenure processes that mean that people aren’t embarking on their own original or ambitious work until after one or two subservient post-docs in their 30s. The U.S., especially around climate and innovation, needs to embrace the voice of its best and brightest when they are at their most passionate and energetic. I think I’m almost too old for Energy Secretary, I’d prefer someone under 40. I’d like the head of EERE to be someone around 35. I’d like the head of ARPA-e to be a swashbuckling 30 year old with big ideas.

Let’s put the energy back into the Department of Energy.

P.S. Seriously though, it’s about people.

You didn’t ask, but I’d like the leadership to look something like this :

Jennifer Granholm or Arun Majumdar for Energy Secretary. In the real world this is a political position and they are good at politics and can speak energy technology. This role needs a great retail communicator who can inspire the nation on the fabulousness of the voyage we are about to undertake.

Alex Laskey or Cathy Zoi to run the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Both have real world experience getting energy technologies to scale. Both can speak Utility as a native tongue. Both can manage a big organization and transition it to one with big ambitions.

Ayana Johnson to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Younger, brings science, communication, passion, and an appreciation of the lands and especially the oceans and their critical role in a climate fix.

Ilan Gur, Danielle Applestone, James McBride or Dane Boysen to run Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-e). All are young, all know the best and worst of the national labs ecosystem and university research establishment and what the private sector and start-ups have to offer. All are creative, all will swing for the fences.

Sam Calisch or Arjun Bhargava for Energy Information Administration (EIA). Young blood that has a 21st-century perspective on data that can press refresh on the EIA and give the U.S. a dashboard of where we are and blueprints of where we need to go to get to zero carbon.

Adam Zurofsky or Katherine McConnell (Brighte) to run the Loans Program Office (LPO) to expand the scope of the office to figure out how to maximally leverage government money with private sector money to maximise deployment of new technologies and to figure out how to finance the 21st century electrification infrastructure that we need that is both supply and demand side.

Founder / Principal Scientist at Otherlab, an energy R&D lab, and co-founder/Principal Scientist at Rewiring America, a coalition to electrify everything.