Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A Secretary of Energy for a Leaner DOE?

I've read a number of stories on President Obama's nomination of MIT physicist Ernest Moniz to be the next Secretary of Energy.  This overview of his background from the Washington Post is as good a place as any to start.  Although I haven't met Dr. Moniz, I've seen him on various panels and am familiar with some of his department's work, such as MIT's reports on the Future of Natural Gas, Future of Coal and Future of Nuclear Power.  As many comments since his announcement have suggested, it would be hard to find a more ideal steward of an all-of-the-above energy strategy. At the same time, this choice also reflects many of the key challenges facing the Department of Energy at this moment, not least the preservation of its R&D activities and other capabilities in a post-sequestration environment.  This is likely to be a different Department of Energy (DOE) than the one that Dr. Chu guided for the last four years. 

If I thought it likely that the DOE would continue to pursue large-scale industrial policy, such as the expanded energy loan guarantee program and other renewable energy deployment-focused activities that originated in the 2009 stimulus bill, I would be a lot more concerned that the President has selected another scientist and academic administrator to lead the DOE, instead of someone who has actually run a large energy business.  Lack of commercial experience was arguably a key factor in the DOE's decision to fund Solyndra even as its main business proposition was unraveling, along with promoting a premature and excessive expansion of US electric vehicle battery manufacturing capacity. 

However, the federal budget sequester is now in place and Congress has little appetite for expensive new programs.  Business acumen seem less critical for a department that must make do with less for the foreseeable future while remaining relevant in an administration focused on advancing renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  From the relatively little I know of Dr. Moniz, his prior experience in government--including a stint as an undersecretary of energy--and prominent role in a first-class research institution should equip him well for this task.

Dr. Moniz faces criticism from environmentalists for his views on nuclear power, natural gas and hydraulic fracturing ("fracking.")  It's hard to imagine any nominee for this job who wouldn't spark some level of controversy, given the conflicting energy goals we've pursued over the years.  I don't give much credence to the Post's inclusion of the views of Professor Howarth of Cornell on the Moniz nomination, considering that much of Dr. Howarth's widely-disseminated analysis of shale gas emissions has subsequently failed to withstand scrutiny.  In any case I prefer the choice of a Secretary of Energy who has some appreciation of the importance of the energy sources that still supply roughly 90% of our energy needs, and possesses a clear understanding of the complexities of the long transition to cleaner sources, rather than one exclusively focused on the latter. 


jtf said...

Howarth's celebrity, much like that of Gilles-Eric Seralini or James McIntyre, seems to consistently refuse to die despite his treatment from the mainstream scientific communities in their chosen fields.

I'd also point out that a different set of Cornell professors and lecturers also published a response to Howarth's paper by the end of last year that was a similarly exhaustive breakdown of his conclusions and methodology. It wasn't reported in your original post on the subject, likely because it came out some months after, but as of right now it's the first one cited in the American Natural Gas Association's treatment of Howarth. I'm proud to note that one of my lecturers in graduate school is one of the authors.


Geoffrey Styles said...

Thanks very much for posting the link to the Cathles, et al paper. I had seen it when it came out and recall being surprised by how closely their critique aligned with my off-the-cuff one. I'll try to remember to cite it in the future.

For what it's worth, I attribute the persistence of the Howarth view to his astute management of media. Science by press release may not advance the field much but it seems to have its own rewards.

Paula Fit said...

How is DOE going to fix this: http://abrege.eu/truth

Geoffrey Styles said...

I believe you're referring to the incident of the Tesla on fire that sent Tesla stock down by $12/sh today. see: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/tesla-stock-tumbles-model-catches-fire-20450475

(By the way, please refrain from using link-shorteners here, as it makes it harder for readers to check the safety of a link before clicking)

As has been widely reported in the media, Tesla made the choice early on to employ what are essentially densely packed laptop batteries, rather than batteries built specifically for automotive use as GM, Nissan and others have. It will be interesting to learn whether the fire in question resulted from one or more defective cells (along the lines of laptop fires that led to Li-ion battery recalls), heat management issues (GM's battery pack is liquid-cooled), or something unrelated to the batteries.