Sep 11, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Obama energy secretary on blackouts, campaign scrutiny

Ernest Moniz

Ernest Moniz. Photo: NurPhoto / Contributor

Axios’ Amy Harder moderated an event Thursday that included Ernest Moniz, energy secretary under former President Barack Obama, where she asked him about some significant developments.

The big picture: The event presented research looking at the challenges of transitioning communities heavily dependent on oil, natural gas and coal to cleaner energy sources to address climate change.

What they're saying: Amy also asked about three areas of focus in the news recently. Here are summaries and excerpts of those exchanges:

Amy: To what extent do you think variable wind and solar contributed to California’s recent rolling blackouts? The nonprofit you run, Energy Futures Initiative, issued a report last year detailing how important long-term, seasonal storage is to California's plans to ramp up its renewable energy.

Ernest Moniz:

“The issues that led to the recent rolling blackout problems were quite apparent. The message there is not ‘don’t do solar.’ It’s about addressing the system in a way that maintains reliability and manages the risk at all times. Unfortunately that is not the current ground truth. … I’m not saying that solar caused the problem, but the reality is, of course, California is way out in front in solar deployment and clearly there is nothing like the storage capacity to move that resource from the afternoon into the evening, so that’s a fact. … You really got to have the system integration and the risk management approaches coming together to make sure you don’t have reliability problems.”

Amy: You say that a key reason big action on climate change hasn’t occurred is because communities relying on oil, natural gas and coal don’t see a viable future for them. Some environmental activists say it’s not so much the workers, but the big fossil-fuel companies that are blocking action. To that end, they’re calling on the presidential campaign of Joe Biden to not take advice from officials who are connected to the fossil-fuel industry, which they say includes you and several other officials from the Obama administration. They cite your position on the board of Southern Company, an electric utility with a mix heavy on natural gas and coal.


“I do not agree with the characterization of the Southern Company as a fossil fuel company. It’s an electricity utility. It also is a natural gas supplier at a retail level. But that’s [like] the statement that anybody who drives an internal combustion car is a fossil fuel company because they use them. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.”

Moniz went on to say that since he joined the board in March 2018, the company has been more active in reducing its carbon footprint.

“We should be looking at these companies as part of the solution as long as they keep at it. I just think it’s the wrong attitude. The attitude is it’s about the carbon.”

Amy: What is the state or region that you think will have the most difficult time transitioning to a clean-energy economy? Why?


New England. Moniz then went on to say that that region has in recent years opposed new and existing energy infrastructure, like natural-gas pipelines, hydropower and nuclear power plants that could help reduce emissions.

“There are a lot of nos. Where are the yeses? … If we are going to go to low carbon, where is it all going to come from? It’s not all going to come from offshore wind. That’s why we need pragmatic, realistic solutions.”

Go deeper: Click here to see a full video of the event.

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