New Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm’s Priorities: In Her Own Words

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) was formed in 1977, combining the Federal Energy Administration, the Energy Research and Development Administration, and the Federal Power Commission. These agencies to that point had covered the various responsibilities of the federal government related to the energy sector, but with the stroke of a pen President Jimmy Carter brought them under one single Cabinet-level agency, nominating James R. Schlesinger as the nation’s first Secretary of Energy. Since then, every U.S. President has nominated and confirmed at least Secretary of Energy to his cabinet, all the way up to President Biden’s appointment of Jennifer Granholm as the 16th Secretary of Energy.

Granholm’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate came at the end of February, and was a virtual lock as many looked to her as one of Biden’s least controversial appointees and garnering support from environmental advocates, unions, and representatives on both sides of the aisle. Heading the U.S. Department of Energy is a job with a lot of responsibility and outweighed potential influence, touching upon side wide varying areas as funding energy research, overseeing the nation’s nuclear assets, financing key utility-related programs, establishing regulation for certain energy markets, and more.

Secretary Granholm has stepped up to the plate and sought to assure onlookers that she’s poised and ready for the job, and she’s taking over the big desk at DOE with some clearly focused priorities. These areas of focus are no doubt in line with President Biden’s agenda, but we can also learn a lot by listening to Granholm’s words for themselves:

Urgent and Widespread Climate Action

“President Biden has tasked the department, his in-house solutions powerhouse, with delivering a cornerstone of his bold plan: the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. For DOE, that means developing and deploying the technologies that will deliver a clean energy revolution.” - Secretary Granholm in interview after being sworn in

In what should come as no surprise given the campaign promises President Biden made towards progressive and aggressive climate action, a focus on climate change appears to be the main driver of DOE under Secretary Granholm. In recent years, much of the progress for clean energy has been fumbled by the federal government and left to states and local jurisdictions to be the real driver of change, but it appears Granholm intends to use everything at her disposal to change that. A core tool at the center of DOE is the 17 National Laboratories where key science and research in energy technology is conducted, and Granholm has noted that it’s up to “the national laboratories [to work] on solutions to decarbonize fossil fuels.”

From funding clean energy R&D to increasing energy efficiency standards to establishing effective financing mechanisms to inspire fast action in the private clean energy industry, Granholm is quickly speaking and acting like someone who recognizes the urgency of climate action. Rather than relying on the fact that most clean energy targets remain decades away, her words ring of someone who is ready to take responsibility and accountability, which is of course a key reason she was selected for the post by President Biden.

Providing an Economic Boom with Clean Energy Jobs

“Two new reports add to the growing stack of evidence that low-carbon recovery measures are the best way to ensure a prosperous, long-term recovery that creates good jobs, builds resilience against future shocks and supports the middle class through this unprecedented time.” - Secretary Granholm in an Op-Ed published in on the eve of the 2020 election

While ideally climate action would be embraced as motivation on its own, the fact remains that economic benefits of the clean energy transition are readily tangible and can make such policies more politically viable. Particularly in 2021 when governments across the globe are searching for effective means to inject a shot of adrenaline into the economy that continues to be impacted by COVID-19, clean energy investment has become a trusted job creator.

Not only are clean energy jobs a great source of new jobs at this moment of economic turmoil, but they are long-lasting, high-paying, and steady jobs that can create long-term boom in the economy. And they won’t be focused in just one region, but rather they’ll be necessary across the country. From an equity and social justice perspective, that means that properly leveraged they can be used to bolster traditionally disadvantaged communities as well as regions that are impacted by the energy transition (e.g., replacing coal jobs in those regions that rely upon them with long-term clean energy jobs). When Granholm was asked by Senator Joe Manchin, representing the coal-reliant state of West Virginia and head of the Energy and Resource Senate Committee, whether she would support using energy tax credits to create jobs in fossil fuel regions, Granholm said “1,000% yes.” In fact, Granholm has oft repeated that she is “obsessed” with creating clean energy jobs, and has noted that “the time for a low-carbon recovery is now.”

Looking at an even bigger picture, the United States can be considered to be in a sort of arms race when it comes to clean energy manufacturing: batteries, solar panels, electric vehicles (EVs), and other clean tech being put in production simultaneously in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and really all over the world. While certain countries naturally benefitted over the past century in being located in oil-rich areas, the energy-first economies are being built today, and they are being fostered by national governments who are investing and prioritizing them. That’s where Secretary Granholm sees the United States heading.

Building up the U.S. Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

“[On the Chevrolet Volt she drives] Best car ever. I just love these electric vehicles. I drive on sunshine. I have solar panels on my roof and plug the car in. It’s just amazing, and I hope we can have universal acceptance and deployment of EVs.” - Secretary Granholm during her confirmation hearing

Speaking of EV production in the United States, it’s no coincidence that Granholm’s experience comes from being Attorney General in and the first female Governor of the state of Michigan, the U.S. automaking capital. She extolled during her confirmation hearing how much she loves driving her EV, and her official portrait in the Michigan governor’s mansion even included an EV. And it’s not just as a cheerleader or driver of EVs, she’s successfully leveraged the EV future to bring Michigan out of economic recession when she worked with then Vice President Biden on the 2009 bailout of General Motors and Chrysler that included incentives to invest in car batteries.

So, while some onlookers gave pause to the DOE head role going to a politician, whereas many recent secretaries had been scientists and researchers who were more in the nuts and bolts of energy tech, Secretary Granholm brings a wealth of EV knowledge and experience, and she carries with her intention to rapidly expand the footprint of EVs across the U.S. transportation industry. Through funding, research, and program prioritization, having a champion of EVs like Secretary Granholm in charge will only advance the pending electrification of the nation’s fleets. While industry onlookers expect the next decade to be the turning point during which EVs will become ubiquitous, Granholm being the helm of DOE ensures that will happen in even more rapid and complete fashion. She’s already pegged Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as a partner in these efforts, noting “We want to make sure people can drive from coast to coast and stop everywhere in between and feel like they're not jeopardizing their freedom of mobility" and calling for 550,000 EV charging stations to be installed across the country by 2030.

Thoughtful and Studious Management of Nuclear Waste

“The administration opposes the use of Yucca Mountain for the storage of [nuclear] waste.”- Secretary Granholm during her confirmation hearing

A key moment during Secretary Granholm’s confirmation hearing came in response to a question about the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site that’s been proposed and debated for years. Currently, 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are sitting in temporary storage at nuclear plants in the United States, totaling 121 individual sites across 39 states. That’s where the idea of the Yucca Mountain storage facility came about, as instead of those many different unsecured sites the waste could theoretically be stored in an underground facility that would be centrally managed by DOE in Nevada.

Like many aspects of nuclear energy, this proposed project has been a lightning rod of debate and controversy, and as such it’s not surprising it came up in her confirmation hearing. This issue has always been something of a political football, with a recent DOE advisor noting that one of Granholm’s greatest challenges will be “trying not to let the actual function of the department — making and cleaning up from the making of nuclear weapons — absorb all of her time and attention." said Michael McKenna, a former Trump energy adviser who briefly led the president's transition team at DOE.” When asked about Yucca Mountain, Secretary Granholm parroted the official Biden position, which is consistent from back when Obama cancelled the project while Biden was serving as Vice President.

In the push for decarbonization, many are looking to nuclear to be one key asset—both in persistence of existing nuclear plants and building out of new nuclear assets via SMRs—but the storage issue is likely to continue to be a point of contention in these debates. Despite heading the department in charge of managing nuclear cleanup and management, Granholm does not appear to prioritize this project and is instead investing time and attention in other clean energy sources.

Boosting Cybersecurity of the Grid

“We’re getting hacked all the time and attacked all the time. We will have, inside of the DOE, a person at a very high level that is responsible for making sure that the response to this is coordinated. We have to harden our electric grid for protection of our energy system.” - Secretary Granholm during her confirmation hearing

The energy transition is a top priority, but it’s not the only job of the Department of Energy. Protecting existing infrastructure, ensuring reliability of the grid, and generally keeping the lights on is a critical role, and in that vein one of the most significant threats persisting against U.S. power systems is cyberattacks from malicious actors. In the past few years, it’s been reported about the level of vulnerabilities that persist, and how devastating the impact could be if a bad actor actually gets in and causes havoc on the grid.

And indeed, multiple events recently have served as doses of reality about how present that threat is: from the SolarWinds hack to the Chinese bulk power systems equipment threat, and more. DOE can and must protect the U.S. grid from cyberattack by coordinating central responses to threats, funding and mandating certain levels of protection against attacks, and serving as ground zero for any types of threats or attacks. A key ally of Granholm notes conversations had with Granholm since she was nominated for the post, telling reporters that "We've talked about the fact DOE was cobbled together from lots of different places or agencies and brought under one roof, and almost every day, you've got a new area that you've got to focus on. That's a challenge for anyone who takes the job.” As such, this issue of focus is another area where Granholm’s experience in a government executive role can put her in great position to act and react, and her prioritization of cybersecurity of U.S. grid assets shows she’s well poised for the job.


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