December 29. By Michael Sales. Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, is President-elect Biden’s choice to serve as the next Secretary of Energy. Granholm champions electric vehicles and, unsurprisingly, worked closely with the automotive industry during her eight-year tenure as governor. Granholm’s nomination is another major appointment underscoring Biden’s systemic thinking about economic and natural ecology: climate action, job creation, improved technology, economic growth, and clean energy production need to be understood as a unified whole.
The Department of Energy (DOE) comprises approximately 14,000 federal employees and over 95,000 management and operating contractor and other contractor employees at the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. and 83 field locations.
Historically, the chief priority of the DOE has been overseeing and managing America’s nuclear weapons stockpile and its nuclear energy facilities, activities that constitute two-thirds of the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget. But the international push to support clean energy and energy-efficiency technologies has led to an evolution of the agency’s mission, which now involves a complex stew of U.S. energy policy, economic policy, and national security.
DOE sponsors more research in the physical sciences than any other federal agency through 17 national labs that engage in original research as well as partnering and collaborations in the public and private sectors to develop advanced technology used in renewables, nuclear energy and fossil fuel production. Under former President Obama, the DOE put tens of billions of dollars into loan guarantees and grants with these partners to expand the adoption of solar and wind power, which significantly reduced the prices of renewable electricity. Unfortunately, the DOE also backed Solyndra, a solar panel company that supported the Obama administration and went bankrupt, costing U.S. taxpayers $500 million.
The DOE is the main funder of battery research, which is key to the transition to electric vehicles. Its lending program is most famous for issuing a $465 million loan to Tesla Motors in 2010 to build a manufacturing facility in Fremont, California. The DOE also has financially backed manufacturing batteries for Nissan Leaf and improving the fuel economy of the F-150 and other Ford models.
During Trump’s term, the DOE approved only a single loan—for a nuclear reactor project in Georgia.
The DOE will play a key role in reducing emissions from the nation’s buildings, which is a focus of Biden’s climate plan. DOE sets appliance standards, conducts research on electric heat pumps and oversees energy efficiency programs. The department also directs research in genomics; the Human Genome Project originated in a DOE initiative.
In a 2010 article, Granholm outlined a set of proposals to create three million new clean energy jobs across the country in just three years and help to revive moribund regional economies. Some believe that, even though it’s a decade later, the ideas presented in that article are the foundation of Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which aims to create jobs while putting us “on an irreversible path to achieve zero net emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050” and “deliver an equitable clean energy future.”
Granholm, 61, moved from Canada to California at age four. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.
She served as the first woman attorney general of Michigan and two terms as Michigan’s governor. She was re-elected by a large margin to a second term in 2006 against Republican businessman Dick DeVos (the husband of the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos) and served until January 1, 2011. She has depth experience with the auto industry, which is seen as an advantage for Biden, who wants to ramp up the production of electric vehicles and the network of charging stations that power them.
After her governorship, she worked as a senior research fellow at the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute. She founded the American Jobs Project, which brought together leaders from academia and industry to create policy “roadmaps” for fostering job growth in the advanced energy sector (which includes renewable power and energy efficiency). She also has served as a senior advisor to the Pew Charitable Trust Clean Energy Program. She is presently quite focused on the economic prospects for a clean energy economy.
Hayes Brown, a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily, questions the viability of the DOE as currently constituted and, therefore, Granholm’s role in leading it. Brown’s analysis begins with the fact that the DOE’s traditional responsibilities focus on America’s nuclear arsenal. The incoming Biden administration has struggled with the dilemma of how to manage the existing core mission (accounting for the majority of DOE’s budget) with its aspirational vision of supporting clean energy. Granholm is clearly in the clean energy camp. But Hayes doesn’t think that sort of split attention is viable. He asserts that splitting the department in two would be a more effective approach, with the non-nuclear arsenal activities housed in:
“A newly reformed department called the Department of Energy and Climate, [which] would encompass…continuing to run the national laboratory system. Ideally, it would also be a new home to several other agencies that deal directly with climate change. That could entail absorbing the Environmental Protection Agency and finally swiping the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency from the Commerce Department.
It’s clear that Biden cares about making climate policy central to his administration and appointing people who can show results. It would help if Granholm could focus her complete attention on those policies. It would take an act of Congress to approve the split, but it’s something the Biden administration should make a priority, if not for Granholm, then for whoever comes next. It’s her job to worry about saving the planet—she shouldn’t also have to worry about our ability to destroy it.”
In a November 7 op-ed in The Detroit News, Granholm cast herself as someone who can work with companies recovering from the coronavirus pandemic while cutting emissions. The private sector, she wrote, “needs greater support and political will from our policymakers to help us fully realize the potential of a zero-carbon future.” She continued:
“Investing in a low-carbon economy will ensure that Michigan remains a leader in the auto industry. [B]y 2025, a low-carbon recovery plan could create 1.7 million new jobs in the U.S. State automakers like Ford and General Motors are producing a greater number of EVs, but policy incentives are needed to ensure that the cost-saving and environmental benefits are available to everyone.
An E2 report—“Clean Jobs, Better Jobs”—found that the median hourly wage of clean energy jobs in Michigan is 6.8% higher than the statewide median for all occupations, and that clean energy jobs are more likely to come with health and retirement benefits.
The economics are clear: The time for a low-carbon recovery is now.”