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Jennifer Granholm Discusses The U.S.'s Energy Infrastructure


President Biden wants to make the U.S. carbon neutral by the year 2050. To do that, this country will have to make drastic, even historic cuts to our emissions, in part by moving our energy sector from one that's highly dependent on fossil fuels to one that centers renewable energy. Now, complicating all of this is our energy infrastructure. Winter storms in Texas left millions of people in the cold and dark and illustrated the vulnerability of U.S. energy grids. Jennifer Granholm has just been confirmed as secretary of Energy. She will lead this transition, and she's on the line with me now. Good morning, Madam Secretary.

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: Good morning, Noel.

KING: I want to start with Texas. It was days before the power came back on. People were cold and in the dark. There were deaths. What did we learn from Texas?

GRANHOLM: Well, clearly - and I know you guys have been covering this - Texas needs to weatherize, winterize, its energy systems. And so that's one big lesson. They knew this since 2011. And now perhaps it will cause the legislature to make the investments that are necessary to do that like they've done in other parts of the country that are very cold during the winter. It's not like climate change. It's not going to be a one-off storm. It is unusual in a warm state. We know that. But this climate change is not going away, so it's only going to intensify those kinds of events. So that's No. 1. No. 2, you know, President Biden is going to Texas today, and there is an opportunity - and I think the country would welcome Texas being at least connected to the national grid in some way, shape or form that allows for its neighbors to help. You know, we could send ions across the electric grid to be able to help in cases - in situations like this. Now, I know that Texas has its own grid, and you've covered that as well. The system is unusual. However, we all plan for redundancies and backups in our lives. And this might be just a backup that Texas might want to consider at this time.

KING: While the power was out, several Texas lawmakers, including the governor, Greg Abbott, said something untrue. They blamed clean energy sources, wind turbines, for the majority of the power failures. Now, that's false. They play a small part in that state's energy infrastructure. But there is skepticism about clean energy at the highest levels of government. And we know when a governor speaks, some part of the public believes. What do you do about that disinformation?

GRANHOLM: I think you just have to continue to educate people. Clearly, wind and solar were not a part - well, they were a very small part, I'll just say, of this, as you have said. What the problem is is that the, quote, "thermal systems," the systems that use heat or that are otherwise used that are not renewable, like nuclear, have a small part, a very small part. But natural gas and coal - the coal piles froze. The natural gas, without being weatherized or winterized, has elements of water in it. And in northern systems, that water is removed during the winter so that people can be warm. And that just isn't done in Texas.

So what we need to do is to make sure that all parts of the country and their leaders understand that this clean energy economy, that reducing carbon emissions, is a job creator for every corner of the nation. So even in coal country, even in gas and oil country, there's an opportunity for jobs. Now, we know that, for example, coal - the market is having its way with coal, without regulation or anything. It is the market, the global market, that is saying we don't - we want to be cleaner. There's a - the entire world is saying we want to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. And so if that's the case, if you can see where the puck is going, as we use in the hockey metaphor, then we should be all gearing toward that. It's a huge market opportunity for the fossil companies to diversify, to become energy companies, which many of them are already starting to do.

And it's a huge opportunity for us to invest in the technologies that actually remove carbon. And that's true in the fossil fuel areas as well. There are technologies that are being worked on in the national labs right now, Noel, that could be taken to scale that actually can be attached, if you will, to these fossil sources of energy that will remove carbon. So the bottom line is you can have a reliable energy grid, a reliable energy system, that will send energy to people's homes during the winter, day and night. But we've got to make the investments to make it happen. And those investments mean jobs.

KING: Let's talk more about jobs. President Biden promises to create good paying, union, clean energy jobs, but it will take time, as I understand it, to scale up U.S. manufacturing. How are you going to get this done quickly, and will there be a 1-1 replacement? If we lose a job in fossil fuels, we'll gain a job in clean energy.

GRANHOLM: Oh, there's more than a 1-1 replacement. There will be millions of jobs that will be created in clean energy. If you can imagine - there's a process, for example, called carbon capture use and sequestration. It's a mouthful. But this is the kind of technology that people in who are working right now in the fossil community could absolutely get jobs in. The technology is ready. It's right away. All we need is the investment and the commitment to attach this technology to natural gas, to the refineries, to coal refineries. We can do this right now. Obviously, wind and solar are everywhere. There is a - there was a report that came out of Brookings yesterday saying that these fossil communities are communities that could benefit disproportionately from investments in wind and solar, depending on their geography. In the South, it may be solar. In the northern parts of the country and certainly in the middle parts of the country, it's wind. There is - this can happen right away. DOE, for example...

KING: You will need to make the case for it. And that does make me wonder, are you going to visit these communities? Are you going to make the case to individuals?

GRANHOLM: Absolutely.

KING: You are - you planning on traveling.

GRANHOLM: Absolutely. And you know what? The great thing about this administration is that they have committed 40% of the benefits of the investment in clean energy - and they're going to do a big jobs package next after the COVID package is finished. They're going to commit to putting 40% of the benefits of that package into communities that have been left behind or have been - are, you know, seeing this transition away from fossil communities or that have been disproportionately negatively affected by pollution. So what it means is that there will be a series of what they call place-based strategies for economic development that can take advantage of this market, that can take advantage of building the products that will get the world to reduce their carbon emissions.

The president yesterday - or two days ago - had a meeting at the White House to talk about supply chains - and I know, Noel, you were a reporter on economic issues, you'll appreciate this - that we have - as a nation, we have allowed our economic competitors like China to take our supply chains, to take our manufacturing capabilities. And we've just sat by and allowed that to happen in the bow that we have made to the reduction of cost. Well, at this moment, for our economic security, for our energy security, for our strategic placement in the globe, we need to be building these products in America and stamping them...

KING: Let me drill down there...

GRANHOLM: ...Made in America.

KING: Yeah. Let me drill down there, if you don't mind, 'cause a lot of this...

GRANHOLM: Please do.

KING: ...Is about cost. That's what economics is. With industries like solar, in a lot of cases, it is cheaper to import from China. You've addressed that. President Trump's solution was to put tariffs on Chinese solar powells (ph) - panels. Excuse me. Are you keeping those tariffs in place?

GRANHOLM: Yeah, that's up to the Biden administration. And I know that their U.S. trade representative was testifying yesterday. And they're going to make that decision about what to do and how to use their trade tools, if you will, to level the playing field. Clearly, we have to level the playing field, but it may mean that the United States has to decide that for our strategic placement, that we've got to invest in some of these technologies upfront like we have been doing and invest in deploying them across the country. So let me give you one example. If we're going to have a reliable energy system, we have to have batteries that store energy from wind and solar, big batteries that are held by the utilities to make sure that we have a reliable ability to dispatch clean energy. And so those batteries, which everybody wants to use for electric vehicles as well, they contain elements from the Earth, like lithium, like cobalt. And we in the United States, we don't - we have them. We have them underground. We have them in strategic locations, but we have not mined for them. We have allowed China to corner the market on these rare earths.

KING: Because presumably American industry has said it's not worth it for us to do that, right? It's cheaper, again, to get it from China. So we've talked a lot about investment. You've mentioned that a lot. Let's speak specifically about whose investment. Is this government money? Is this industry money? Are you going to give industry some sort of incentive, like a tax break or a loan? How will this work?

GRANHOLM: Yeah, I think that all of the tools should be made available to create our own energy security. You saw this past couple of weeks that there is a problem with semiconductors, for example. We can't build the cars that we want to make without access to the right semiconductors. Well, maybe we have to have a buildout of that industry. Well, the same is true with batteries. And so we have to decide as a nation, is this important for our national security? Is it important for our energy security? Yes, it is. And that means a partnership with government and the private sector. And so, yeah, there may have to be public-private partnerships to ensure that we can build our energy security in America, create American jobs. And a lot of that, Noel, as you know, new technologies are always more expensive. And so if we induce some investment and see the deployment, once you take it to scale, those costs can come down.

KING: U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, thank you so much for being with us.

GRANHOLM: You bet. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "INTROSPECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.