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U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm Talks Infrastructure, The Ames Lab, Biofuels And More

FILE - In this May 11, 2021 file photo Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington. Granholm testified Thursday, June 24, 2021, before a U.S. Senate committee that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. must maintain the effectiveness of its arsenal. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Evan Vucci
IPR File
Granholm recently met with the Ames Laboratory about making renewable energy more efficient.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm was appointed by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in February 2021. She served as Michigan’s first female governor from 2003 to 2011.

Recently, Granholm virtually toured the Ames Laboratory and met with the lab’s researchers to discuss sustainable energy and technology. She joined River to River on July 29 to discuss the visit as well as share her thoughts on the future of infrastructure, combating climate change and sustainable energy.

A wind turbine stands over a farmhouse in Adair, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
IPR File
A wind turbine stands over a farmhouse in Adair, Iowa.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Kieffer: “Before I ask you about your virtual visit to the Ames Laboratory last week, I want to have you comment on this breakthrough yesterday (Wednesday) on the infrastructure package in Congress. The Senate voted to take up the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that would make some far-reaching investments in the nation's public works system. Many Republicans joined Democrats in clearing the way for action on this piece of President Biden's agenda. Seventeen Republican senators voted to advance the bipartisan infrastructure plan. Sen. Grassley voted yes, Sen. Ernst no. What does this bipartisan deal mean in terms of energy, infrastructure and policy for the nation?”

Granholm: “Yeah, thanks for asking. I'm so excited about this because it'll be the most significant investment in our transmission grid and our power infrastructure in our history. I mean, we need to expand both capacity of our transmission grid as well as the resiliency of it. And we need to make sure we have dispatchable, clean power. Actually, in Iowa, you guys are such a great example of a state that relies on clean power. What is it — 57 percent of your electricity - is, which is the highest wind power share of any state. That's the kind of thing we want to replicate in this bipartisan infrastructure framework. It gives us the means to bring power from places that generate it to more dense places that use it. But it also allows for us to make the grid more resilient from these extreme weather events. And it also allows us to invest in carbon management technologies like carbon capture and other kinds of technologies like that being worked on in places like the Iowa Ames Lab to make sure that we can take those technologies to scale.”

Kieffer: “Let's talk a little bit about your recent virtual visit to the Ames Laboratory to discuss the future, I understand, of making renewable energy more efficient. For those who don't know, the Ames Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratory located in Ames, Iowa. It's affiliated with Iowa State University. It's a top level national laboratory for new research. Their research goes back many decades. Tell us, Secretary Granholm, why you wanted to talk with the folks at the Ames laboratory?”

Granholm: “Well, first of all, the Department of Energy has 17 national labs associated with it. And Ames, of course, for 74 years has been partnering with Iowa State to lead in this discovery and synthesis and analysis of novel chemistries. And it's a crown jewel in our research and development ecosystem in the United States. So I wanted to visit. I want to visit all 17 labs. But because of COVID, many of the visits that I have been able to do have been virtual. And so it's really great, because it allows for the labs to really shine a spotlight in a concentrated period of time, in an engaging way, what they are doing.”

“And one of the things that you all should be so proud of Ames Lab for doing is that they are the home of what is known as the Critical Minerals Institute. And why is that important? For example, if we're going to electrify our transportation system, we're going to need batteries to power the vehicles instead of internal combustion engines. And in the batteries, the guts to that battery would need critical minerals and critical materials. And here we have a situation in the U.S. where so many of the batteries that are going to be powering these electric vehicles have been manufactured in countries that may not have our interests at heart, maybe economic competitors, and so President Biden wants to make sure we manufacture the full supply chain of the means to our energy independence, and that means we should be responsibly extracting critical minerals. We should be developing critical materials to make those vehicles lightweight. We should be extracting the critical minerals in a responsible way. All of that is all centered around what the Ames lab in Iowa is doing. So it's really exciting to know that there's such a critical part of the vision of this administration to make us both energy independent with clean energy and create jobs in America building that supply chain.”

Kieffer: “What were your chief specific takeaways from that meeting, as to what role the lab will play in our energy future?”

Granholm: “Yeah, I mean, the good news is that the Ames lab is doing work in a whole variety of areas. But my takeaway is that the Ames lab is going to lead us in this effort, not just on critical materials, but in making our solar panels, for example, more efficient, in enabling quantum computers to run on much less energy. They're very advanced in discovering ways to be more energy efficient. The good news is that they are going to be very relevant in finding the solutions to make us energy independent and to helping the world to get to the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.”

Kieffer: “It's been a disastrous summer in terms of weather. Scientists say climate change is driving these deadly weather disasters around the world. Hotter temperatures, deeper droughts, heavier rains. Back to the infrastructure package, give us a sense of how that infrastructure fits into the President Biden's larger vision for aggressively tackling climate change. We've heard from so many IPR listeners, climate change has really gone up in terms of personal priorities. People want something done here, of course.”

Granholm: “And, you know, as an agricultural state, your farmers see it every single day. They're feeling it. They can gauge the difference from year to year. I mean, the fact that July was or June was the hottest month, the hottest June on record last year, and it was the hottest June on record the year before. And if this is the hottest June that we've just experienced, you know that it will be the coolest…the coolest June that we will be experiencing into the future, unless we take this on. So the fact that Siberia is on fire, the fact that we've got these wildfires, and half of the western part of the country is in drought, should be the exclamation point that no one needs on the need for quick action. And this is why the president has prioritized addressing climate change.”

“He addresses it from two perspectives. One is this sense of urgency because of what we are seeing, these crises that continue to cascade and get more intense, but also because of the need to capitalize on this sector, this energy sector. So this is going to be a $23 trillion global sector, the need for products that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. $23 trillion, that's a massive global sector, and it's going to be that much by 2030. And so the president is saying we could stand by and allow other countries to corner the market, or we could get in the game. And that's what he's saying. This is why he's so focused on buy American, build it in America, make sure that we take advantage of this clean energy economy to address the big looming existential crisis that we are facing, which is, of course, climate change.”

“And let me just say this: there's always debate about how much it costs and all of that. Last year, we spent $100 billion cleaning up after these huge extreme weather events. In the 1980s we spent about $17 billion a year cleaning up after extreme weather events. It has cascaded and cascaded. In fact, last year was low. If you average the past five years, we've spent on average $125 billion dollars a year cleaning up after these events. My point is that if we do nothing, we will continue to pay more. We will continue to see more of these extreme weather events. We will continue to see land lost both to extreme temperatures, but also to the rising sea waters. Bottom line is the president feels like we've got to address this. It's why he's asking for a clean energy standard in the reconciliation bill that will be negotiated as part of this, which means that he wants to see one hundred percent of our electricity come from clean sources by the year 2035.”

Kieffer: “Let me give you a view I'm sure you've run into multiple times, I certainly have. That this is really an exercise, at this point, because the train has left the station in damage control. Some people have — this is the attitude I'm sure you've run into — have given up. It's too daunting. It won't make much of a difference at this point anyway. We just have to deal with the change. What do you say to those attitudes that just say, even if we're all on board right now, this is a runaway train?”

Granholm: “Well, it's very clear that we have to do both adaptation and mitigation. Both of those are true. And to say we should do nothing, I mean, what, do we continue to allow the planet to burn up? No, that's not acceptable. We can manage the rise. We want to get to a very minimal rise to meet the global goals that have been expressed in at the Paris agreement, et cetera. So it's doable, but it's not easy. And it means that we have to be serious about investing in the kinds of technologies and the kinds of jobs that will get us to the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, which is the goal. So we've got to start now. I mean, today is already too late, but tomorrow will be even later, we've got go, go, go. Part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the deal that was announced yesterday, includes a huge amount, $50 billion dollars for resilience. So for communities that need to bury the transmission wires, for example, because they may be in fire hazards or for communities that are on the coast that need to build the walls, that would include retaining walls to prevent seawater from floating in. I mean, the bottom line is we need to address it. We need to adapt. Yes, we need to mitigate the future damage and we need to take action and lead.”

Kieffer: “You lauded Iowa's growing considerable renewable energy sources, especially wind. Also, biofuels make this state a leader in green energy, perhaps speaking also to that infrastructure package that got a boost yesterday. What is our future here, specifically in Iowa, when it comes to renewable fuels, wind energy? What do you see there? And the biggest challenges to overcome? What do you see in terms of, perhaps in transmission, as the biggest challenges to overcome so that Iowa can grow even more in terms of renewable energy?”

Granholm: “Yeah, I mean, Iowa, you get all this power from wind. We'd love for you to get to 100 percent clean energy and then export, right? And that means that you have to have sufficient transmission capacity to get it to other areas. And that's true for other very high wind producing states. We need to double the capacity of the existing transmission grid to get the number of gigawatts of clean energy on the grid that is necessary to get to this goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. We have to add over 1,100 gigawatts of clean energy on the grid, which means that that capacity has to expand. And as we expand the capacity, of course, we want to make it more resilient. And I would say as well, free from cyber-attacks.”

Kieffer: “Yeah, that's a big part with all the ransomware attacks and so forth.”

“I want to get some emails and some social media questions from our listeners. Greg on Facebook asks, 'What steps can be taken to incentivize nuclear power, nuclear power for greater progress on reducing CO2 emissions?' I'm sure you're aware Duane Arnold Energy Center, Iowa's last nuclear power plant, continues its decommissioning process. But I understand there are more than 50 commercial nuclear power plants still operating in the U.S. What's your comment for Greg there?”

Granholm: “Yeah, I mean, I agree with him 100 percent. Nuclear power is clean and it is safe. It currently provides 55 percent of the clean energy that we use in this country. We want to support the existing fleet, which is why the bipartisan infrastructure deal actually incentivizes those fleets to stay on. And we have to invest in technology to create the next generation of nuclear, the small modular reactors. So both need to happen. If we get a clean energy standard in the reconciliation bill, then a lot of the issues related to the fiscal challenges that some of the nuclear plants have seen will go away because they will be included in that clean energy standard.”

Kieffer: “Right. And we have Three Mile Island in our minds here. Can you assure people that nuclear power is much safer than Three Mile Island, that era of reactor?”

Granholm: “Honestly, the regulations and the oversight of the nuclear power industry in this country are second to none. It is, I mean, that is very yesterday, Three Mile Island. You do not see that at all today because of the incredible rigor and restrictions that there are on the plants that operate. They are enormously safe. They are very highly overseen by independent experts and by, of course, the licensing, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that licenses. So the bottom line is that issue I understand why people have it in their mind because there have been movies about it. But that issue is nonexistent in the current fleet.”

Kieffer: “Here's another one of our listeners, an email from Grant: 'Does the U.S. subsidize any forms of non-renewable energy? If the answer is yes, what would it take to stop those subsidies? A congressional vote?' Grant asks.”

Granholm: “It would take a congressional vote. And yes, there are subsidies for fossil fuels, which, of course, is really backward looking. And in the reconciliation bill that is being contemplated in Congress right now, those would be removed and they would be helping to pay for the president's Build Back Better agenda.”

Kieffer: “OK, let's talk a little bit about the pandemic. How has the pandemic shaped the future of our energy policy, perhaps comment on the short and long term?”

Granholm: “Yeah, what a great question. I mean, first of all, the pandemic has caused us to think differently about how we use energy, meaning it has caused people to work at home more. So you have less transportation, less fuels being used, less actual electricity being used. Our Energy Information Agency has cataloged the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the pandemic. Now, you don't want a pandemic to force the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. You'd rather have those reductions continue because of technology and because of the right investments. But the pandemic has really caused us all to rethink how we live, work and play. And that means how we use energy as well. So there may be a silver lining in how we think about the importance of using technology rather than perhaps vehicles to communicate and to meet.”

Kieffer: “Back to being able to withstand whatever climate change deals us with in the future. I'm sure you're aware we have a one year anniversary coming up August 10, the derecho, the extreme weather that hit our states, mostly Iowa, a good part of the Midwest. This storm caused billions of dollars of damage, destroyed tens of thousands of trees, many experts have described the derecho as an inland hurricane with some weather stations recording 126 mile an hour wind gusts. It happened actually right during my show (River to River), knocked me off the air and put a tree on the structure I was in broadcasting from. What is the Department of Energy's top priorities when it comes to making sure power and energy are firmly in place in times of crisis?”

Granholm: “This is why the investment in this bipartisan infrastructure deal on resilience is so important. These freak storms, like that. I mean, the fact that you guys had a hurricane, essentially, inland, but out of dry, and you had Texas in February, freezing in Texas, which is a freak storm. And then you've got these now repeated wildfires out west. I mean, all of this suggests that we have got to do a better job at resiliency.”

“So what does that mean? That means burying the transmission wires, perhaps, in places where that makes that makes sense. And your farmers would know this because they get paid for having wind turbines on their property. Well, you can imagine if there were a trench that were dug and a transmission line buried on farmland, but then you could farm over the top of it, and never even know it was there, as opposed to having it above you, where it's susceptible to wind storms, et cetera. That's a form of resiliency that could benefit farmers as well as benefit the planet and certainly the country. Those kinds of solutions are what people are looking at now in the face of these extreme weather events.”

Kieffer: “Secretary Granholm, addressing your critics, the president's critics, when, for instance, the future of the auto industry, he says, is electric. There's no turning back, says the president. The question is whether we will lead or fall behind in the race for the future. But more broadly, changing the auto industry to electric, it's claimed that will cost manufacturing jobs. What difference does this green, really leaping into the green energy future, make in terms of jobs?”

Granholm: “Great question. There have been several analyses done on this, the bipartisan infrastructure framework and the green component of it. Two million jobs per year for the next decade will be created. 500,000 per year in manufacturing, because you need to build all of these products. So the vehicle, yes, there are there are fewer moving parts inside of an electric vehicle. And so there may be an impact on the supply chain for those moving parts. But you still have to build the battery, which is the guts for the electric vehicle, and that has a whole supply chain that we want to be able to create in the United States.”

“And when you think about the other kinds of products that are necessary, we've lost the ability to manufacture and we're going to get it back. But we've lost it to manufacture wind turbines and the supply chain for those wind turbines. Well, the president says, look, we're going to put solar panels on the roofs of all these federal buildings, we're going to lead by example. And we want to create a market here for American made solar panels. So the bottom line is, if we are intentional about creating the manufacturing and the supply chain in this country, it will mean millions and millions of jobs. And this is why the president says when he hears the words 'climate change,' he thinks jobs.”

Kieffer: “Before we conclude our conversation, I have to throw in this Facebook question from Greg. He asks, ‘Under what conditions might you run for president in 2024?’”

Granholm: “Well, that would never happen because I was born in Canada, so I have a constitutional cement ceiling, but I appreciate the thought.”

Listen to the interview with Granholm here.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio