Feb 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Jennifer Granholm's big energy challenges

Photo illustration of Jennifer Granholm and wind turbines.
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images

New Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm hasn't been especially controversial, but her easy confirmation may not be a prologue of what's to come.

Driving the news: The Senate voted 64–35 Thursday to approve the former Michigan governor for the post after a nomination process devoid of drama.

Why it matters: The DOE is slated to play a big role in President Biden's push to greatly expand R&D and market deployment of clean tech to fight climate change.

But Granholm will have plenty more on her plate too. Here is a preliminary list of five things we're watching...

1) Congress: Biden is asking Congress for extremely large increases in research, development and demonstration funding, and DOE is the main venue for that work.

  • His plan calls for $400 billion over 10 years to bolster research and innovation programs, so Granholm will need to sell it to GOP lawmakers.
  • Capitol Hill Republicans thwarted former President Trump's effort to slash DOE's budget, but what Biden wants greatly exceeds the R&D increases in recent years.

2) Grid modernization: A major build-out of clean power generation will need lots of new infrastructure to carry those electrons.

  • But getting transmission built is notoriously hard, and jurisdiction is fragmented both federally and between the federal government and states.
  • Advocates will be looking to Granholm. "DOE’s transmission authorities are limited but its bully pulpit is strong," Grid Strategies president Rob Gramlich tells me.
  • "The agency has tools to fund grid planning and stakeholder engagement and provide some permitting support where needed," he says.

3) Natural gas: Granholm will face competing pressures here when it comes to the DOE's role in continuing the expansion of LNG exports.

  • She has signaled some support for LNG by saying it can replace global use of higher emissions fuels (read: coal) while also saying domestic gas production has to get cleaner.
  • The industry will be looking for both more export authorizations (though exporters have plenty in-hand) and support in working with allies to strike deals, a role DOE played under Trump.
  • The American Petroleum Institute's statement on her confirmation said it welcomed her endorsement of LNG.
  • But part of the Sierra Club's response warns Granholm against "locking the country into decades of fossil fuel development by supporting infrastructure such as LNG terminals."

4) Cars: The former Michigan governor has plenty of experience with the auto industry.

  • So she's likely to be a point person for Biden administration efforts to speed up deployment of EV production and charging infrastructure.

5) Unions: Swaths of the labor movement are wary of the Biden administration's energy agenda and dislike moves like scuttling the Keystone XL pipeline.

  • Granholm will be under pressure to help fulfill promises to bolster the creation of good jobs in emerging sectors.
  • Her NPR interview this morning touts carbon capture tech as one area of growth.
  • “This is the kind of technology that people who are working right now in the fossil community could absolutely get jobs in,” she said, while also citing new Brookings Institution analysis of potential renewables jobs in fossil fuel regions.
Data: ITIF; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: ITIF; Chart: Axios Visuals

The chart above shows the last few decades of energy-related research, development and demonstration programs at the Energy Department (which, contra its name, is a hub for many kinds of science).

It demonstrates both how investment has fallen from where it was decades ago and how much smaller current levels are than what Biden is seeking.

What we're watching: Granholm's efforts to bolster research and to speed up market penetration of existing and emerging clean energy tech.

  • “Our focus is going to be both on discovery, but also deployment. We’ve got to add, as a nation, a huge amount of clean energy to the grid,” she told MSNBC last night.
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