Direct Current Returns!
The nation's 16th Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, is a force to be reckoned with. In the first episode of our new season, Direct Current sat down with the former governor of Michigan to talk clean energy, climate, her "obsession" with creating millions of good-paying union jobs, and her vision for the Department.
Climate change is intensifying and ravaging our communities and our planet. Now, more than ever, it’s time for a bold investment in America to put millions of people to work, lay the foundation for economic growth, heal our planet for future generations. Read our blog post to learn what President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is all about — building an economy that works for working families and confronting the climate crisis at the same time.
Secretary Granholm's Message to America
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MATT DOZIER: Hey Direct Current listeners, in case you thought the show was over — well guess what, we’re back! This is your host, Matt Dozier. I’m back from parental leave for the birth of my son, and I am so excited to bring you all-new episodes — starting with a very special guest today. So stay tuned, and we’ll have lots more stories of energy and science coming your way.
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DOZIER: You're listening to Direct Current: An Energy.gov Podcast. I'm your host, Matt Dozier. Today I am thrilled to welcome to the show the nation's 16th Secretary of Energy, former Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm. Madame Secretary, thank you for joining me.
SECRETARY JENNIFER GRANHOLM: Oh, it's so great to be on, Matt. I'm a big fan.
DOZIER: So nice of you to say that. I want to start off with you coming to this job, when President Biden asked you to serve as head of the Department of Energy, what was it about this job that appealed to you?
GRANHOLM: Oh, my goodness. How could one not feel so utterly called to be able to be in a position to impact climate change? When I was governor, we diversified into areas involving the products that would respond to the warming of the planet, and hopefully reduce greenhouse gas emissions — whether it was vehicles or the batteries for the vehicles, wind and solar and all of that. And after that, I was teaching at UC Berkeley and led a research project that was called the American Jobs Project — kind of like the American Jobs Plan, but really focused on these regional solutions and opportunities to create jobs in this massive global sector, which is in clean energy, which there will be $23 trillion of a market if we can take advantage of it. So when he called and asked, I was like, oh my gosh, the opportunity to create jobs for people in America in clean energy, to reclaim some of our manufacturing capacity that we have lost, to be able to work and help America lead again on climate and resolve the biggest existential question that we face — how could this not be just such an amazing honor to be part of this incredible team here at DOE, working on such a mission?
DOZIER: You've come to the agency at really a time of great change and upheaval. We're now a few months into your tenure as Secretary and more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. What's it been like coming in at such a pivotal time?
GRANHOLM: Yeah, I don't have a point of reference, right? Because I've actually only been here six weeks, and it has been just unusual, because the building is almost empty. You don't get a sense of the hub of energy here at the Forrestal building anyway, I know this is true at the Labs as well. I haven't been able to visit, physically, any Lab. I haven't been able to look at people in the eye. It's been unusual, for sure. I take great solace in the fact that we are getting people vaccinated and that soon this will end, and it's been really quite a time of planning and preparation and hiring of people to be able to make sure that we've got our foot on the — I was going to say "foot on the gas" — foot on the accelerator for the electric engine that we're running. (LAUGHS)
DOZIER: Accelerator, right!
GRANHOLM: So it's been unusual, but it's been unusual for everybody, right? It's been unusual being a long-time person here at DOE, I would imagine — not being able to connect with colleagues and everything. So I'm eager for normalcy to come back in so that we can really accelerate our efforts.
DOZIER: So, let's talk a little about your vision for the Department. What keeps you up at night? What are you thinking about in terms of taking this agency forward?
GRANHOLM: Yeah. What keeps me up at night, Matt, is really this question of our ability to accelerate deployment of the solutions that have been researched in the Labs. Obviously, we want to continue to do the research for the next generation of technologies, but we also have a lot of technologies that we have proven out that we have got to take to scale, and help to do that, and add gigawatts of clean energy to the grid. So I want to make sure that we are as robust and aggressive as possible in making that happen, and exercising that muscle. We've done a lot of, obviously, research, development, and demonstration, and demonstration is obviously a key precursor to deployment, but DOE hasn't had as big of a role in actual deployment — and now we can, especially if the American Jobs Plan is passed. There will be resources to make sure that we can be a part of getting this technology out.
DOZIER: In terms of the past year — and we talked about the change, upheaval, COVID pandemic — has this past year affected your perception of the urgency of the work DOE does, of our mission?
GRANHOLM: For sure, it has. I mean when you think about the need to — as Joe Biden would say, the need to "build back better," right — I mean we're in... we passed the rescue package, we now have a recovery package, and what's our role at DOE in ensuring that we can as a nation really corner the market on some of these products, the ability to deliver and produce clean energy. We have a massive role in that. And what does that mean? It means for communities that have been left behind, for communities that are marginalized, that have borne the brunt of pollution, that this is such an opportunity for them. When you think about communities of color, they have borne the brunt of COVID as well as pollution. And so disproportionately lost jobs, disproportionately lost wages. What is our role in helping to salve — and solve — that problem? How can we lift communities that have been pushed to their knees because of both decisions that were made in the past to bisect neighborhoods with power plants that spew pollution, as well as the difficulty in getting vaccines to communities, et cetera. There's just so much of a role that we can play in bringing an economy to these communities and have them be part of the mission to solve climate change. So I, what we've seen over the past year has really just amplified how important the role of the Department of Energy is — even though you might not think that at first blush. But because we're creating a whole new sector of employment, that is just a huge opportunity for these communities.
DOZIER: And to that end, so it's been a fast start here, the first 80 or so days of the new administration. What are some of the big things that you've seen happening at DOE in the early days of this administration?
GRANHOLM: Well, first of all, I have to say that the first days of this administration has really been trying to staff up. And so, in order to get the right policy in place you have to have the right people in place, and I just have to give a shout-out to my chief of staff, Tarak Shah, and my senior advisor, Christopher Davis, who have been doing through the transition and up until now so much of the hiring, putting people in place to fill these vacancies that always happen, obviously, after you transition from one administration to another. But they're putting incredible people in place! Really great people in place, it's super exciting — people who are just as impatient as I am about seeing action on the ground. So that's, number one, that's terrific, and we've still got a lot to do in that regard. But I've been really so wonderfully surprised and pleased by the unbelievable quality of people that we are able to bring in, in addition to of course becoming familiar with the quality of the people who have been here, who are amazing. So the combination is just great. So that's number one. Number two, I would say one of the first things the president did was to sign an executive order regarding coal and power plant communities, and what we can do on that. And DOE has led that intergovernmental working group. And the notion that departments and entities can come together to say, "Here's what we have now that we can use to help these communities as the market has transitioned away from fossil fuels — particularly in coal communities? What can we do to give them hope, but reality, that there can be jobs for them that use the skills that are commensurate with the skills that they're already familiar with or already have. And third, I just love the fact that we announced that we have an offshore wind goal of 30 gigawatts off the Atlantic coast, and we want to make sure we get the right turbines in place, turbine manufacturer in place, blade manufacturers in place. Obviously the transmission and the grid connections, super-important, and I would say too: on the transmission side, if we get the American Jobs Plan, there are a lot of incentives to continue to build out this transmission and the grid to make sure that we are able to address the siting and permitting challenges that have really caused so much delay. And so to bust through that, as an impatient person — like a lot of people are who are in this space — it's exciting to see an administration that is going to put some muscle behind that. So all of these things are things that I'm really proud that we're working on, not to mention getting the American Jobs Plan passed so that we can put all of this on steroids.
DOZIER: That's a great point to segue into the American Jobs Plan. We heard you mention it already, and would love to hear in your words, what is it and what are the goals of the American Jobs Plan?
GRANHOLM: Yeah. Well, the goals of the American Jobs Plan are to put people to work. Right? Jobs being number one on the list, and the easiest way to that from a governmental perspective is to focus on infrastructure. We have disinvested in infrastructure as a percentage of our economy — infrastructure is the lowest it's been since World War II, research and development is the lowest it's been since the 1960s, again, as a percentage of our economy. Manufacturing, we're at a 72 year low. So this big slug of funding that is strategically going to be put toward programs that we know we've got in infrastructure to get out the door, and some where we're being new about it. For example, we recognized that we have a real need for semiconductors, and we don't have semiconductor fabrication facilities in the United States anymore. We have allowed them all to escape, right? We've allowed Asia to corner the market on it. So we need to think: is this something that we need as a nation if we're going to build electric vehicles, if we're going to be advanced in other technologies? Heck yes! We need to be able to have our own supply chains for these. As a nation — I mean this is what I really appreciate about the American Jobs Plan and what this president has said — we are not going to just bow to the "altar of low cost." We are going to decide that there are some things that the United States must do in order for our own strength to exist, whether it's strength in manufacturing, whether it's strength in national security. Here's another example: it's crazy that we're doing all this wonderful research on battery technology for renewables and for transportation, and yet we don't have the full supply chain to those batteries here. So there has been... we get cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which uses child labor to be able to extract that. We buy solar panels from a country that has human rights violations. Why would we do that? Why wouldn't we create our own means — including the full supply chain? We've got all of these resources under our feet. We have lithium, we have cobalt, we have all these critical materials. We can responsibly mine. We can responsibly process — and if we do, then you'd better believe all of these other advanced industrialized nations will see us as a market. Because they don't want to be getting their supply of these materials from countries that are engaged in human rights violations, either. And that's true with solar. People say, "Oh we lost out on solar." And it's true! We stood at the side of the road and just watched as China had a very strategic plan — and I want to be clear, I'm talking about the Chinese government, not the Chinese people. This is the government's decision, understandably, because they want to provide employment for their people, but they have engaged in a whole strategy to corner the market on polycrystalline silicon for solar panels. We used to do — we used to provide that polycrystalline silicon. And I say that because as former governor of Michigan, we had the largest producer of that polycrystalline silicon, a company called Hemlock Semiconductor, in Michigan. And boom — China strategically decided that they wanted to do it, and they developed policies to do it, and we just allowed it to happen as a nation! We're like, "OK, whatever!" It's so crazy. So, bottom line is this Act, this Plan, will create the supply chains for the products and the research that's being done at the Labs to be taken to scale, to give us the strength we need as a nation, both for jobs as well as to create our own energy security. So it does, obviously, huge amounts of infrastructure and roads and bridges. It also does the infrastructure of the care economy. A lot of people will say that it's really important that I can find options to care for my grandparents and my children — and if we don't think that's a jobs issue, I'm not sure what is a jobs issue! If you want to incentivize states to raise the wages of caregiving so you can have those options for your family, that has huge bipartisan support, actually. So all of this discussion that's happening about what is infrastructure, what's not infrastructure — it's really just a semantic thing. All of the provisions of this Act have huge bipartisan support. It's called the American Jobs Plan because we want to create jobs, all kinds of jobs for all kinds of people in all pockets of the country.
DOZIER: Can we tunnel in a little bit more to the DOE side of the American Jobs Plan and the agency's role specifically, and the ways it's going to be able to help reach those goals set forth in the plan.
GRANHOLM: Yeah, obviously on the research and development side there's a big slug of money to be able to ensure that we are researching the next-generation technologies. And that obviously is going to hugely beneficial for the Labs, and the Labs are doing this great work in it. There is a series... a few chunks of money for demonstration projects, like in carbon capture, use and sequestration for fossil fuels, and for hydrogen. Green hydrogen, blue hydrogen, the bottom line is hydrogen could be seen as an amazing dispatchable, baseload, resilient fuel, but we've got to get down the cost. We've got to reduce the cost of electrolyzers, for example, in green hydrogen... and take it to scale, right? So demonstration projects in CCUS and in hydrogen are embedded in this bill that will be right up our alley, and will also help us to address some of the communities that have been left behind as well by providing job opportunities in these place-based strategies. Obviously, the work, the investment that's being made, $174 billion in electrifying our transportation system — obviously our vehicle technologies office and the Labs that are doing research on batteries, all of that will be brought to bear in this next phase of it. Obviously the Department of Transportation clearly has a role in putting in the charging stations across the country, but the technology and doing next-generation batteries, continuing to reduce the cost. That's all DOE's bread and butter. So there's a lot in here that focuses, in addition to the manufacturing side and making sure we have these supply chains, that is relevant for us as a department.
DOZIER: Pivoting from one of the top-line issues of your... the goals you set out and the administration's goals being job creation to one of the other top-line priorities: the climate crisis. What role does DOE have to play in fighting climate change?
GRANHOLM: Well, clearly we are bringing solutions to bear on making that happen. But let me just say that the Biden Administration has a goal of getting to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. The way we get there, that's all coming out of DOE. How do we get there? How do we reduce carbon? How do we manage carbon emissions if we've got fossil fuels? How do we expand our renewable energy generation? Do we add additional civilian nuclear, obviously, nuclear energy, through small modular reactors, et cetera? How do we get those sited, how do we fund all of those? DOE has a massive role — and I just have to say a word about the deployment side of things, because the Loan Programs Office is back in business. We know that over the past four years there hasn't been a lot of activity out of LPO, other than there has been some funding of new nuclear. But Jigar Shah, who was appointed, he knows this area about financing projects really well. He wants to remove some of the barriers that entrepreneurs have expressed in getting access to the Loan Program Office loans — loan guarantees. That's a lot of projects that we want to get out the door, we want steel in the ground, we want people to see it and feel like, yeah, there is an opportunity for me, and there's certainly an opportunity for the planet. So we have a huge role in deploying so that we can contribute to making sure that we have net-zero carbon emissions and that climate — let me just say one other thing. I am visiting Argonne this week — virtually. They have all this climate modeling that they are doing, as well as a number of other labs. Everybody's doing fantastic work with advanced computing. But between what Argonne is doing, modeling, what NREL is doing for example in giving Los Angeles a roadmap to how they get to 100 percent clean electricity. So much happening in the Labs to be able to enable local units of government to plan for climate events, and plan long-term for climate adaptation or mitigation, and to plan as well for how they might be able to get to 100 percent clean electricity. So it's very exciting, the brainpower that DOE is bringing to be able to support the efforts on the ground in these local communities.
DOZIER: Right. And then there's also the flip side of the climate crisis and the impacts that we're seeing on the communities. What are some of the ways that DOE can help these communities like that have been impacted by wildfires in California, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, the recent freeze that crippled south Texas. Is there work going on at the agency and the Labs to help protect and mitigate the impacts of climate disasters.
GRANHOLM: Alright, I approach this question with such great humility because I haven't been able to visit a single Lab yet. I've only just heard around the boundaries of what the capacity is, and I know it's huge — that the Labs have been doing amazing work on this. Not just to predict when these storms are coming or when these events might happen, but also to adapt, to provide technology for sensing and for... You know, I was asking Pat Hoffman, who's our acting director of the Office of Electricity, "What have we been doing on, like, desalination, so that a state like California that's about to experience another drought could actually use water from the sea?” And we have a whole desalination group. So anytime I think, "Have we been doing work on this subject?" Somebody of course has been doing work on this subject! So, I always say that I only what I know, and I know I have a thimbleful of knowledge, if that, compared to what I know is happening out there. So I look forward to answering this question in about a year, after I get a chance to visit every one of the Labs.
DOZIER: It's kind of a fun game to play, "Are the Labs working on it?" Because the answer's almost always yes!
GRANHOLM: Yeah! Because they are! (LAUGHS) So true.
DOZIER: I was going to ask if there's anything that's surprised you about the agency since you started, but it sounds like maybe that's it right there.
GRANHOLM: Oh, my God. I guess what has surprised me is that it really is the Department of Everything. And the people who are working on these solutions have such massive brains and such massive ability to get those solutions, and hopefully to deploy them. So, I shouldn't be surprised, but every time I meet somebody I'm like wow, that person is so amazing! That is so great, I'm so happy that DOE has these incredible people working to solve these problems. I love it.
DOZIER: Last question, with that in mind of how wide the reach of the agency is, the diversity of the work the Labs do, and some of these topics being pretty complex, wonky — we're talking about the energy grid, we're talking about particle physics. Why do you think it's important that we help the American public understand the full breadth of what the Department of Energy and the National Labs do?
GRANHOLM: Matt, this is a great question for you, because I know Direct Current has been doing this podcast and trying to, right, to democratize, if you will, what's happening in a very science-y environment. I mean, maybe that's sort of one — people lament if you don't have a scientist at the head of DOE, so I'm just a lowly political scientist. But one of the things that I can do is to help translate. I can be "bilingual" and to make sure that people understand what's going on inside the Labs — to the best I can, of my ability. But also, it's a great opportunity and a challenge for the Department: How do we bring the work that's being done in what many consider to be the "ivory towers" of the lab "to the street" — to get people to understand the amazing work that's being done on their behalf. So this is part of the challenge, and part of the opportunity. I really look forward to working with people like you, who I know probably can give me some advice on what works and what doesn't work in terms of telling the story of what DOE is doing — but particularly in the Labs, in these very complicated areas that most... I always use, "Will my Aunt Linda understand this?" Can I tell this story to my Aunt Linda in a way that makes her really interested in it? I talked to... This was the rule I had when I was governor. Will Aunt Linda care? Let's do it in a way that will get her to care. Now Aunt Linda has since passed, so now I use my mother — who I talk to every day — and I call Mom, because she's alone, my father passed away last year. And she always wants to know what happened, and I try it out on Mom. If I can get an 86-year-old woman who has a high school degree — if I can get her to be interested in it, I know I'm onto something.
DOZIER: I'm going to keep your mom and Aunt Linda in mind in our next episode.
GRANHOLM: Please do. (LAUGHS)
DOZIER: Secretary Granholm, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate you joining me.
GRANHOLM: You bet, Matt. Thanks so much. Totally fun.
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DOZIER: Thanks for listening to this episode of Direct Current! It’s great to be back, and we’ve got lots more in store for you this season. So subscribe if you aren’t already, and share the show with a friend. We'll be back soon with another episode — in the mean time, you can find the rest of our episodes at energy.gov/podcast. Direct Current is produced by me, Matt Dozier. Sarah Harman creates original artwork for all of our episodes. This is a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. See you next time!
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