Dr. Jennifer Wilcox
Biography for Jennifer Wilcox, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy and Carbon Management
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Remarks of Acting Assistant Secretary for FECM Dr. Jennifer Wilcox as prepared at Climate Neutrality Forum on October 13, 2021


Good morning – and good afternoon to our colleagues in the UK.

My name is Jennifer Wilcox, and I am the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management at the U.S. Department of Energy.

I want to thank you for inviting me to take part in this forum, and I welcome the chance to talk to you today about what the Biden-Harris Administration – and particularly the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management within the DOE – is doing to tackle the climate crisis and transition to net-zero carbon economy by mid-century.

This mission – and the work required to achieve it – is more urgent than ever before.

As you know, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change resent assessment report is sobering – absent deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, average global temperatures will exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

And the report couldn’t be more clear – climate change and its impacts are not just on the horizon – they are here, as we’ve seen across the country with severe impacts associated with more frequent and intense storms, droughts, and wildfires.

So, we have an urgent, but shrinking, window of opportunity to limit the harm done to our most vulnerable climate populations.

For our part, the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management’s mission centers around investments in technological readiness that helps ensure clean and affordable energy, while helping facilitate a just and sustainable transition toward a net-zero carbon economy.

We’re pursuing research, development, demonstration, and deployment approaches to advance technologies that reduce carbon emissions and other dangerous pollutants and prioritize the well-being and health of frontline communities.

While the aim is to always avoid the emissions before they enter the atmosphere, our climate goals require putting carbon dioxide removal – or CDR – technologies in place, especially for the hardest-to-decarbonize applications in the electricity and industrial sectors.  And that’s what I want to focus on today.

But let me just touch for a moment on CCS, because it plays an important role in our carbon management strategy – and the work we’ve done on those technologies has opened the doors to some of the CDR approaches we’re pursuing. 

Ultimately, to achieve net-zero carbon emissions targets, we’ll need to capture CO2 on the order of gigatons.  And, of course, that means we must reduce emissions from the power and industrial sectors – and CCS is indispensable to doing that.

DOE – and our office in particular -- historically invested a great deal of time and resources in CCS. that was targeted largely toward application on coal-fired power plants. 

But as we work toward net zero, it’s important to recognize that the investments we have made in CCS on coal will be leveraged. For instance, some of the same technologies for capturing emissions from coal-fired power plants can also be used for carbon capture from natural gas and even the process emissions from some industrial sectors like cement and also steel production.

But CCS alone isn’t a blanket solution. Climate models make it clear that both carbon removal and decarbonization will be needed to meet climate goals, and we  will need to be thoughtful about how we distribute resources and funding across the sectors.

If we’re presented with the option of 1) avoiding the carbon emissions to begin with or 2) pulling them  back out of the atmosphere, we should always choose #1 because it’ll be cheaper and easier – which translates to less energy, less land, and less water – fewer of Earth’s resources – and always, the less carbon we have to manage, the better off we’ll be from a climate perspective. 

But to achieve net zero we will need carbon dioxide removal approaches that can permanently remove CO2 from the accumulated pool in the atmosphere. And that’s where our direct air capture R&D efforts can play an important role. 

Separating CO2 from the atmosphere has some aspects that overlap with point source capture, which has been a significant part of our office’s CCUS R&D program – both in terms of the separation processes and its reliable storage. So, as part of a broader DOE effort to advance CDR technologies, we’re leveraging a lot of the work we’ve been doing on CCUS to help advance direct air capture.

Since January, the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management has invested $33M into the research, development, demonstration, and deployment of direct air capture technologies.

We also announced $15 million in funding opportunities to advance DAC technologies in January.  In June, six projects were awarded $12 million to help create tools that will increase the amount of CO2 captured by DAC, decrease the cost of materials, and improve the energy efficiency of carbon removal operations. In August, we selected four additional projects to study new structured material systems and component designs for DAC technology.

And to advance CDR technologies like DAC, our budget request for the coming fiscal year includes $63 million to continue our CDR research and development activities. 

But, as I mentioned a moment ago, what we’re doing in our office is part of a much larger department-wide effort to develop and deploy carbon dioxide removal solutions.  And that effort isn’t confined solely to the U.S.  As you may know, Secretary Granholm announced at the Clean Energy Ministerial meeting earlier this year that the Department of Energy will work with our global partners to launch a major Mission Innovation initiative focused on CDR at COP26. 

  • So, all of this is promising, and we have an opportunity over the next few years to move CDR forward.  In fact, we’re seeing some impressive movement on the ground, with the “Orca" direct air capture and storage plant in Iceland becoming operational. 
  • However, there are challenges. 
  • Of course, one of the biggest hurdles to advancing CDR is, most notably, a shortage of policies that help to make CDR economically viable.
  • It’s clear that we need to look really hard at incentives that can help spur investment and drive technology deployment.  Government has a critical role to play here – and in the U.S, President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes provisions to encourage deep infrastructure investments to create a larger platform for how DOE could work on CO2 transport, conversion, and storage.
  • So, there are a lot of moving pieces involved in getting us to net zero – and a lot of work to go around to deploy carbon removal at scale.  The good news is that the Biden Administration is committed to developing and deploying them.  For our part, DOE – and the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management – stand ready to support critical technology RDD&D and to partner with industry to advance these solutions.
  • While we focus on the work needed to scale these critical technologies, we must also incorporate a new way of thinking, where environmental justice, equity, and workforce development are at the center of our CDR efforts.  We have an opportunity to build back better – to build and deploy these important technologies in a better way than we have done previously. We have the opportunity to incorporate and engage local communities – especially those that have been disempowered –and engage them in the decision-making process. 
  • The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to meeting the climate emergency and put in place a sustainable and fair net zero carbon economy – and to position both CCS and CDR to play a key role in that effort.
  • This kind of transformational work isn’t easy.  It requires collaboration across government, industry, and  academia – and across international borders.  We’re committed to working with our partners in the U.S. and around the world to advance CDR, and we welcome the opportunity to engage in conversations like this to further that effort.
  • So, thank you again for inviting me to join you today, and I look forward to our discussion.