S3 E1: Sitting Down with Secretary Perry

June 20, 2018

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S3 E1: Sitting Down with Secretary Perry (Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast)
U.S. Department of Energy

“The coolest job in the world.”

You know Rick Perry as the current Secretary of Energy and former Texas governor, but did you know he once played drums with ZZ Top? Hear from Perry himself in the season 3 premiere of Direct Current as he sits down with our hosts to discuss everything from supercomputers to Dancing with the Stars!

Meet Secretary Perry

Get to Know Energy Secretary Perry

From his service in the U.S. Air Force to leading the nation’s top agency for energy, technology, and science, Rick Perry has done big things for America. Watch this video to see just a few of his accomplishments through the years.

Follow Secretary Perry on Social Media

Secretary Perry has visited the National Labs, Alaska, and everywhere in between to advance American energy. Follow his work on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Learn more about the Energy Department's leadership.

 

[Editor's Note: This interview was recorded shortly before the unveiling of the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which as of June 2018 claimed the title of fastest supercomputer in the world.]

 

Transcript: 

(DIRECT CURRENT THEME PLAYS)

MATT DOZIER: And we’re back! I'm Matt Dozier.

ALLISON LANTERO: And I'm Allison Lantero. Welcome to Season 3 of Direct Current. Did you miss us?

DOZIER: We’ve got a lot of great stuff coming up this season, and we’re kicking it all off with a special interview.

LANTERO: That’s right! We sat down with Secretary Perry to discuss his first year in office, new energy realism, and even his favorite dance moves.

DOZIER: And be sure to listen to the end of the episode for a big announcement.

(JAZZY BRASS FANFARE PLAYS)

DOZIER: This is the season 3 premiere of Direct Current and we are here with a very special guest, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.

LANTERO: Thank you so much for being with us today.

PERRY: You're welcome, and howdy.

LANTERO: (LAUGHS) Howdy.

DOZIER: So, Mr. Secretary, you've been on the job for a little over a year now. We're wondering what part of it has surprised you the most.

PERRY: Well, the depth of which this agency affects things going on around the world I think is the most surprising thing for me. You think about the Department of Energy, you think about solar, wind, fossil fuels, hydro, but it's a lot more than that. It's negotiations going on with the North Koreans. It's the Iranian Deal. It's geopolitics of energy that are affecting the world, and you get a real grasp of the breadth of the agency, the scope of all the different things that it affects.

LANTERO: You've called being Secretary of Energy the "coolest job" you've had. What are some of the cool things you've gotten to do as secretary?

PERRY: Yeah, I remind people, the best job I've ever had was being the governor of the great state of Texas, but the coolness factor of the Department of Energy comes into, generally, the National Labs. These 17 just absolute jewels that the Department of Energy works with and operates, far flung across the United States, and when you see the supercomputing capacity that affects everything from our ability to protect information, protect our citizens, protect the health of our citizens... five of the ten fastest supercomputers in the world belong to the Department of Energy. So those computers, their ability to manage and to analyze massive amounts of data, are right on the cusp of all of the really great, vexing issues that face us as a society. So it's very important that we stay in that race to have the fastest computer in the world. Which, by the way, we don't today. The Chinese have the two fastest, then the Swiss, then the Japanese, but we're soon to be back in that number one spot, and hopefully we'll retain that for years to come.

DOZIER: In addition to the "cool" stuff you've gotten to do and see as Secretary of Energy, I assume there have been some challenges. I was wondering what some of the biggest, or one of the biggest challenges has been during your time here.

PERRY: Yeah. Are we through with cool stuff? Golly man, I just got started on cool stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

DOZIER: Keep rolling if you want! (LAUGHS)

PERRY: No, seriously. The climate, how we deal with that, and one of the interesting things is obviously hydrogen cars and hydrogen fuel. One of our labs has a just amazingly interesting project: hypersonic aircraft. And the fuel that they use, hydrogen fuel. Being able to move an individual anyplace in the world in four hours — that is the epitome of the word cool. So the Department of Energy's labs and what they're doing in a vast array of different areas — that's just one on the hydrogen fuels side — and making our lives better, affecting the climate...

PERRY: I was just reminded of another fascinating project that's going on at Berkeley. One of the scientists there is working with diamond dust. Well, we all love diamonds, or most people do anyway, but the diamond dust is used as a basis for identifying cancer — in this case, breast cancer. So you don't normally think of the Department of Energy and health. But we're right at the epicenter.

DOZIER: OK. So we've talked about the cool stuff.

PERRY: Yeah.

DOZIER: So, biggest challenge, then. What has been a particularly tough challenge for you to face as Secretary of Energy?

PERRY: Generally the world doesn't wait around for you. As much as you may find it fascinating to be working on all these cool projects, reality stares you in the face. And the reality of the world we live in today is it's a very dangerous world, a complex world, and it's world that relies upon a resilient source of energy. And that means the grid. That is the sector specific area of the United States that the Department of Energy actually statutorily has a responsibility for — make sure we have a reliable, resilient electrical grid. When you flip on the switch, whatever it may be, whether it's to cool your home, whether it's to turn the lights on, whether it's to keep whatever massive important piece of machinery — including 90 percent of the military bases in the United States — that is the Department of Energy's responsibility. Well, why is that a daunting challenge? Partly because of the world that we live in today, the natural disasters that may occur. Polar vortex that comes into the Northeast. A massive heat wave that comes into the southwestern part of the United States. A hurricane of massive proportions, like Superstorm Sandy. All of those can cause great harm to the electrical grid. And then the one that kind of keeps you up in the middle of the night, and that's the threat from a cyberattack. It's a national security issue from my perspective, to be able to say to the people of the country, to the commander-in-chief, that we've done everything possible that not only are the lights going to come on, we're going to keep our families safe by keeping the house warm or keeping the house cool, and very importantly making sure that our military bases have the power to continue to be the strategic defense for this country.

LANTERO: Jumping off there, here at the Department we've been talking a lot about this idea of "New Energy Realism." What does that mean to you?

PERRY: Well, realism, a lot of the time, is in the eye of the beholder. (LAUGHS) In this case, the New Energy Realism is that a decade plus ago, the United States was dependent upon a lot of different energy sources that came from different places than the United States. And because of innovation, not regulation, the private sector in particular — but with the help of places like the Department of Energy — America is now the number one oil and gas-producing country in the world. We're delivering energy I think to 28 different countries now on 5 different continents.

PERRY: Now, think about that.15 years ago we were dependent upon energy supplies from outside the United States to drive our automobiles, to keep our factories going. We had a massive trade deficit with countries that were supplying energy to the United States. So all of that now has been turned on its head. The geopolitics of that's not lost on anyone. The economics of that's not lost on anyone. People who live in those areas where you have these natural resources, the quality of life that they have, the jobs have been created. This New Energy Realism I think is one of the most dynamic things, most interesting things, that is occurring in our country at this particular point in time.

DOZIER: I also wanted to talk about this idea of "Energy Dominance," is another theme that we've heard. Can we have both at once, New Energy Realism and Energy Dominance?

PERRY: The term Energy Dominance is an interesting one. I like to use America First, and lot of times that scares people when they hear that, particularly if they're not Americans. (LAUGHS) What the president means by that is he wants America's interest to be first. When it comes to the decision-making process, he wants us to go to the table to get the best deal that we can for the United States. When people are thinking about doing business around the world, whatever it may be, whether it's hardware, software, whether it's agricultural products, whether it's energy. He wants you to think America, first. This isn't America alone. This is America in a very competitive sense. And so this idea that America now is a net producer of more oil, more gas than any other country in the world, yeah, we're dominating in that area right now. But we're also deliverers of freedom. We're not just exporting our energy resources. We're exporting freedom, and I think that's a really important thing to share with our friends around the globe is that 15 years ago, a country in Europe might be dependent on the Russians as their sole source of energy. That's not true today, because they have options — one of those options being the Unites States, delivering LNG into the European area, the message clear — that competition is a good thing. Having options is a good thing. The United States, there aren't any strings that come attached with that energy.

LANTERO: So, you came to this job with a wide range of experiences in the energy field. Not just with oil and gas, but a long history with wind power as well. How have your experiences helped you as you set the priorities for the Department?

PERRY: Life's experiences somewhat guide you, or should, and so as the governor of Texas back in the early 2000s, we had a relatively thinner portfolio of energy sources in Texas. We were reliant upon a couple: gas and coal, you would basically say we had zero wind energy. Then natural gas went to 4-5 times what it is today. And at that particular moment, we had one of those epiphanies, if you will, that we needed to have a diverse portfolio — that wind energy was one of the things that we could produce. There were some things that the government needed to do, help build the lines from out in west Texas where the wind occurs back to where the populations are, and we did. Today, Texas produces more wind than any other state in the nation. As a matter of fact, we produce more wind than all but 5 countries. So the diversity of the Texas portfolio is very broad, and I truly believe that you need a very broad portfolio. You need hydro, you need nuclear, you need coal, you need gas, you need these renewables that we haven't mentioned that are out adding to the grid as well. The growth potential in this country should not be limited because we have limited our forms of energy. And all of those we're using are helping on the climate side, as well. I think since 2007 we're 14 percent less carbon dioxide emissions in this country. Clean coal is making great strides in this country. Carbon capture. We're doing some really fascinating things. Fact is, we're going to be using fossil fuels way into the foreseeable future. Matter of fact, by 2040 the world will still be 77 percent powered by fossil fuels. Our goal is to find the clean ways to use them — the cleanest form of those fuels. Because I think it's a moral responsibility of those of us who are from countries of plenty to make sure that those who live in areas of the world that don't have any power at all have access to it. Clean, affordable, accessible.

DOZIER: We're about to enter the 2018 hurricane season. Obviously the 2017 hurricane season was very damaging, very destructive. Can you talk a little bit more — you touched on this earlier, but can you expand on the Department's work to protect our electrical grid from natural disasters and that sort of thing.

PERRY: Yeah. We are very involved, obviously, with the reconstruction in Puerto Rico. We learn something new every disaster. That's one of the things, as a governor, we had a number of hurricanes and a number of other natural disasters that occurred in the state of Texas while I was governor, and we learned something new in every one of them. But one of the great lessons I learned is how resourceful the people of this country are. Particularly those on the electrical utility side of things, the sacrificial nature of men and women who come in after a storm to help those who have lost everything. The resiliency of our grid, again, not just from the potential of a cyberattack, but from a natural disaster, and how we rebuild those using newest, best technologies is one of the real challenges that we have. But again, our expertise at National Labs and our life's experiences are what paint, I think, a bright future for the country. Who knows what the 2018 hurricane season has for us. We'll pray for the best and prepare for the worst, but we'll be ready.

LANTERO: So, what is something that most people don't know about you?

PERRY: Man. Oh, yeah! I know what it is. That I played drums with ZZ Top.

LANTERO: (LAUGHS) You did?

PERRY: Yeah. That was what most people don't know.

DOZIER: Really?

PERRY: Yeah. It was pretty interesting.

LANTERO: When was that?

PERRY: Well, ZZ Top opened up the Compaq Center in like the early 80s, I'm going to say. And they called them and asked them to come close it back down as it had been sold. And I knew their manager, and he asked me if I wanted to come play with them as they played the last song in the facility. So I told him, yeah, that would be a fun thing.

PERRY: So anyway, Billy Gibbons, Dusty, and Frank, and... Rick got up on stage, and they pushed out an extra riser and I accompanied them on "Sharp Dressed Man." And we tore it up.

(LAUGHTER)

DOZIER: I was going to ask how it went.

PERRY: Yeah, it went very well. Somebody asked me have you done it again? I went, "Nope." On a deal like that in front of 17,000 raging people that are wondering what the governor of Texas is doing up on the stage. And we did it, I won't say flawlessly, but we did a very good job of it. Got a big standing O at the end of it, and bowed, and ran off the stage, and vowed never to do that again.

LANTERO: So do you play drums?

PERRY: That's a... term of art.

DOZIER: We'll leave it at that.

PERRY: Yeah. I did that day.

(LAUGHTER)

LANTERO: So, one thing you and your predecessor Ernest Moniz have in common is great hair. What's your secret?

PERRY: Ernie did have some good hair. Um, it's science.

LANTERO: Ah, yeah. So, can we expect you to grow it out to rival his look?

PERRY: Uh... no. (LAUGHTER) I would not look good.

DOZIER: You never know until you try.

PERRY: Ernie could wear it, I'm not sure that's me that's not my look. And what I mean by science, is genetics. I bet his mom and dad had a great head of hair.

DOZIER: You gave us a taste of your stage presence with the ZZ Top story. As I think pretty much everyone knows, you were also on "Dancing with the Stars" season 23. Is there anything you learned from the show that proved helpful in your current role?

PERRY: Um. Showbusiness is hard. I mean, that's the bumper sticker. The one thing, in all seriousness, that I learned is how much respect I have for the professional dancers. They are great dancers. It was the hardest thing I've ever done from the physical and mental side — the only thing in my life I could compare it to is going to pilot training, and the year I spent in an intensely focused time in 1972-73 becoming a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. And you think about — it's time and space, it is thinking way ahead, plus doing it all to music. I guess the comparable would be a choreographed aviation ballet, what we normally refer to as aerobatics.

LANTERO: So you are an Air Force vet  — how has military service impacted your life?

PERRY: I am very biased about service to the country. And it actually comes in a lot of different ways. You don't just have to wear the uniform. I used to tell young men and women who would come into the governor's office, find a place you can give back. Maybe the Marine Corps, all the way over to the Peace Corps. Just find your place in life to give back. And that's the one great thing that I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to serve my country, to be a veteran. And you never know how things are going to turn out in life. Don't ever feel like you've failed at something just because it may not go the way that you want it to. I intended to be the president of the United States. Didn't work out that way for me, but I got to do something that from my perspective is even cooler, and that's to work at the Department of Energy with a place that is almost 40 percent populated by veterans. And it's a privilege for me to get to work with them because they are truly men and women who understand the role of service and sacrifice, and they're all about getting the mission accomplished.

DOZIER: I know that that is a big priority, helping veterans here at the Department of Energy and throughout the United States. Can you tell us a little about the work that's going on to help veterans here at the Department?

PERRY: Yeah. The supercomputing side of what we have access to at our National Labs give us a inroad on the medical side, and particularly on the mental side of that as well, so the Department — we've set up a program called Artificial Intelligence Big Data Initiative. Being able to use those computers to analyze massive amounts of data to come up with the answers to problems that have vexed us for a long time because we just didn't have the computing capacity. Now, a program that we can run with a massive amount of data, say for our veterans — data that's kept private, of course — but allow these researchers the ability to do machine learning, and then using artificial intelligence to give us answers to post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, suicide prevention in our — not just our veteran community, but all first responders, the concussion issue in some of the professional sports or, for that matter, in our children's sports. You know, a mom whose daughter's been concussed four times, we may be able to give her some answers that beforehand were beyond our reach. So these computers, these specialists, this effort in this program called ABI, I'm holding out great hope of giving Americans some real signals about, "Here's where your tax dollars get spent. Here's the results of the dollars at the Department of Energy." And hopefully they'll respect that, salute that, and be supportive of it going into the future.

LANTERO: So you and your wife Anita are dedicated dog lovers. Do you have a favorite among your current cast of characters?

PERRY: Blasphemy. (LAUGHTER) That you would say that there's a favorite amongst them. Well, whichever one's happiest to see me when I come home wins, and so on any given day it can be any of them. Except for Lucy, and she's 16 so she's a little more restrained in her jumping and barking. But still does it.

DOZIER: Got one last question.

PERRY: Oh, one more, OK.

DOZIER: Looking to the future, what do you hope your legacy will be as Secretary of Energy?

PERRY: You know, I hope Americans look back at this period of time and they're like, those were people who cared about the future of this country. They were open-minded about the science, they used the resources of the agency well, but they answered questions that caused us great concern. That's-

LANTERO: I think that would be a pretty good legacy.

DOZIER: Well, Secretary Perry, thank you so much for joining us here on the show.

LANTERO: Yeah, we know you're a pretty busy guy.

PERRY: Oh, it's my privilege to be here.

LANTERO: Thank you so much.

PERRY: Yes, so long.

(AMBIENT ELECTRONIC MUSIC WITH CHIMES)

DOZIER: Many thanks to Secretary Perry and his staff for fitting us into his busy schedule.

LANTERO: Thanks as well to the folks at Transition Music, Bob Haus, Robbie Myers, and the Energy Department Public Affairs team. Direct Current is produced by Matt Dozier and Me, Allison Lantero. Art and design by Cort Kreer. With support from Paul Lester, Ernie Ambrose, Gigi Frias, and Atiq Warraich.

DOZIER: Alright, Allison, I think we’ve kept them waiting long enough.

LANTERO: Yeah, you’re probably right. The big announcement we mentioned at the top of the show is that this is my last episode as co-host of Direct Current. I will really miss getting to interview fascinating people and tell lesser-known stories about the energy all around us. But I’m not worried, because I’m leaving the show in great hands.

DOZIER: Yep, all the way from her office cubicle, you know her from Cort’s Quarks Corner & our ASMR SMR segment, we’re excited to welcome... Cort Kreer as our new co-host.

CORT KREER: Hey guys! I’m excited to be back behind the mic. I know I’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill, but I will do my best.

LANTERO: And with that, I’m out! Thanks for two great seasons!

DOZIER & KREER: (FADING OUT) Bye, Allison!

DOZIER: OK Cort, want to do the honors?

KREER: Sure! If you have questions about this episode or any other episode you can email us at directcurrent@hq.doe.gov or tweet @ENERGY. If you’ve enjoyed listening to the show, why not share it with a friend or leave a review on iTunes?

DOZIER: We’re a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.

KREER: Thanks for listening! We’ll be back in a few weeks.