When Ernest Moniz looks at Texas, he sees groundbreaking energy research and innovation — and not only related to oil and gas: wind, solar and battery technology that could bolster the reliability of those renewable resources, too.
“The kind of innovation shown here is certainly very important for the whole country,” the U.S. energy secretary said this week at the University of Texas at Austin. “I know Houston claims to be the energy capital of the world, but I think Texas has a broader role.”
Moniz, a nuclear physicist who has overseen the Department of Energy since 2013, was speaking at a Quadrennial Energy Review gathering, his administration's periodic deep-dive into pressing issues concerning the nation’s power sector.
With its know-how, Moniz suggested, Texas can play a major role in shrinking the country’s carbon dioxide footprint and addressing climate change. If it chooses to.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune, the energy secretary discussed Texas officials’ resistance to the federal Clean Power Plan, which the U.S. Supreme Court has blocked as a legal challenge winds through court.
He also chatted about a West Texas company’s effort to store high-level radioactive waste currently sitting at nuclear power plants and what — if anything — can be done to protect the grid against an out-of-this world threat that some Texas lawmakers fear: electromagnetic pulse.
The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.
TT: We’ve been closely following the legal saga of the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s state-by-state effort to address climate change by curbing carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas. Last year, you accompanied the delegation that negotiated the international climate accord in Paris, and the Clean Power Plan is considered a major part of our country’s commitment to curb emissions. Texas’ Republican leadership maintains that the regulations, if they do survive in court, would cost billions of dollars to implement and threaten reliability on the electric grid. Would the standards be as difficult to meet as they suggest?
Moniz: We are very confident about the Clean Power Plan’s legal foundations. Many states — not all states, clearly — are continuing to develop implementation plans. I want to emphasize the extraordinary flexibility that the EPA has built into the system. We have a lot of confidence in letting the states use the flexibility to have both reliability and cost reduction. And the expectation is for considerable energy efficiency gains that could end up helping households ultimately save on energy costs. States, in our view, should get on with the planning.
TT: Texas officials have adamantly said they won’t prepare a plan for if they lose in court. They say it would be silly for Texas to expend the resources in constructing a plan, in case it gets struck down. Do you think that’s foolish?
Moniz: I’m not going to characterize it in those terms, but such planning, in my view, is a good investment. In the Paris results, you have every country in the world basically saying we’re going to lower carbon dioxide emissions. And Texas is part of a much bigger national and international phenomenon of rapidly growing a clean energy technology marketplace. The Paris accord is going to give that another big jump globally. We’re talking about trillions of dollars in a clean energy marketplace. That’s a reality, and I think there’s a lot of prudence in trying to get one's self well-positioned in that marketplace.
TT: If the justices do strike down the Clean Power Plan, would that deliver a heavy blow to the U.S. position on international climate policy? What if we’re saying we want other countries to lower their emissions, and our own effort falls apart?
Moniz: I’m not going to get into a hypothetical about something I don’t expect. But I will note that the Clean Power Plan is one of many important elements of the White House’s Climate Action Plan. One Department of Energy program that gets a lot less attention, but is enormous, is our role in setting efficiency standards for appliances and equipment — electric motors, heating and cooling systems and the like. We have picked up the pace pretty significantly. Take the efficiency rules that have been put in place and those we project to be put in place in the next nine months. By 2030, their cumulative impact would be north of $500 billion in consumer energy cost savings, and they would help us to cut carbon dioxide emissions by about 3 gigatons. It’s a big number, and it’s got nothing to do with the Clean Power Plan.
TT: Waste Control Specialists recently applied for a license to store spent nuclear reactor fuel at its facility in West Texas — pitching it as a temporary solution to the problem of finding a final resting place for the highly radioactive waste. Do you see on the horizon any permanent solution for that waste, and might Texas play a role?
Moniz: The key, we believe, is that success comes only through a consent-based process. And that’s a problem. As part of an overall waste management system, the dry casks entering consolidated storage [as would happen under the Waste Control Specialists proposal] should be part of the solution. Ultimately, we need a geologic repository for commercial spent fuel, but even with that, consolidated above ground storage is a sensible part of a plan. Waste Control Specialists came forward, and we think the idea of doing it through a privatively funded facility is extremely interesting. And I’m encouraged by their application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In Congress, there are some very strong supporters, and not only from Texas.
TT: If the commission grants the company a permit, would Congress still need to act to make the project a reality?
Moniz: Clearly, there needs to be some congressional action. For example, how’s it going to be paid for?
TT: Texas Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, recently held a two-day summit on some unconventional threats: electromagnetic pulse attacks — the frying of our electric grid by detonating a nuclear bomb above our atmosphere — and solar storms that could inflict similar damage naturally. Describing various doomsday scenarios, speakers at the conference suggested that officials weren’t doing enough to protect the grid against these threats, and that we should be spending more money on them. Do you see these sorts of phenomena as major threats?
Moniz: Well, there’s a spectrum here, right? From geomagnetic storms, for example, to nuclear weapons detonated at an altitude — these are quite a spectrum of electromagnetic phenomena. We are working on these. The fundamental issue we’re focused on right now is the protection of transformers. We have a set of sensors we’ve supported here in Texas that deal with these kinds of geomagnetic phenomena. And historically, there have been examples of interference from this. So it’s a real phenomenon. In terms of something like nuclear blasts, lets just say this is a very low probability, very high consequence event. It doesn’t occupy a large portion of our agency’s time, but we are looking at what can be done.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.