Apr 1, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Granholm eyes talks with Big Tech on AI power needs

Jennifer Granholm is standing on a factory floor, wearing a hard hat and a headset.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tours a Heinz-Kraft factory floor in Holland, Mich. Photo: Hans Nichols, Axios

The Biden administration wants to "accelerate" its conversations with big technology companies on how to generate more electricity — including with nuclear power — to meet their massive demand for artificial intelligence computing.

Why it matters: The growing demand for power from AI and data centers is a "problem" that needs to be addressed, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tells Axios in a wide-ranging interview.

  • "AI itself isn't a problem, because AI could help to solve the problem," Granholm said last week during a tour of the Midwest, where she was selling President Biden's record on green tech and manufacturing.
  • The DOE is exploring how energy-hungry tech firms might be able to host small nuclear plants on the campuses of their massive data centers.
  • But conversations with big companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon need "to accelerate, because this demand for power is only going up," she said.

Driving the news: Granholm spoke with Axios after she announced a $1.52 billion loan guarantee to help restart a shuttered nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Michigan last week.

  • If the Holtec Palisades plant receives regulatory approval, it will become the first recommissioned nuclear facility in U.S. history — part of "major milestones" the Energy Department expects this year for nuclear energy.
  • In recent years, electricity consumption has been largely flat, but the needs of electric vehicles, AI computing and data centers — plus clean tech manufacturing — has added new demands on utilities.

Between the lines: The promise of nuclear energy, which currently accounts for 20% of U.S. power generation, was clearly on Granholm's mind.

  • At the same time, the Energy Department is grappling with the growing energy needs from AI computing.

What we're watching: Tech companies have been exploring — and investing in — nuclear fusion to help power their data centers, even as they shift power to renewable sources. But fusion technology could be years away.

  • Another source is nuclear fission, produced by small modular reactors (SMRs).
  • "Not all of them, but a lot of them— Microsoft, etc. — are interested in bringing their own clean power," Granholm said. And some technology companies are already shifting to running data centers on renewables.
  • Still, getting all the appropriate permits to build SMRs is an issue, she said, as are costs.
  • "We're trying to crack the code," she said. "How do you bring down that cost, so that utilities are willing to take on the risk of SMRs?"
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