The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Ernest Moniz of EFI
This series of Q&As has provided the opportunity to talk with and learn from an amazing group of energy and environment leaders. For this, our 22nd Q&A, we’re keeping with the theme of engaging former government officials by welcoming the 13th Secretary of Energy, Ernest J Moniz. Secretary Moniz is now the President and CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative and EJM Associates. And as you’ll see in his answers, he’s an incredibly focused and astute advisor on the future of energy. We’re thrilled to feature his perspective in the Common Sense Colloquy!
Secretary Moniz served as Secretary of Energy from 2013-2017 after serving as Undersecretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration from 1997-2001 (when RENEWPR President Ben Finzel was a presidential appointee in the Department as well). He was the founder of the MIT Energy Initiative and the Director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment in addition to serving as a member of the MIT faculty from 1973 to 2013 when he was appointed Energy Secretary.
Secretary Moniz’s numerous accomplishments would require a blog of their own, but a few highlights include: his role as a key architect of the Paris Agreement at COP 21 in 2015; his receipt of the first Public Service Award from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2019; and his current role as Co-Chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
At EFI and EJM Associates, Secretary Moniz leads a team of professionals (including past Q&A participant Melanie Kenderdine) in providing advice and counsel to energy and investment firms and policymakers. Secretary Moniz is a policy rock star with the unique ability to communicate directly and clearly about complex and challenging topics. We’re so happy to share his wisdom and insight with you and so thankful that the Secretary made the time to participate in this Q&A with us.
Our BIG thanks to Secretary Moniz for sharing his time and insight with us – and you.
Q: You're recognized as an excellent communicator and people listen when you speak. What role do you think communications plays in advancing policy, particularly on complex or hard-to-explain topics?
Energy is central to everything we care about in a society, but it’s also hard to understand. It’s important to communicate energy issues in a way that is easy to understand for the broadest possible audience.
At the Energy Futures Initiative we emphasize that coalition-building is absolutely vital to getting deep decarbonization on the schedule we need. Any program for change has to be both ambitious enough to be effective and popular enough to be passed. Such a program can only be built, in my view, by being pragmatic, and not drifting to either end of the political spectrum when building those coalitions.
One critical part of this coalition building is increasing political accountability on climate, which is why I’ve joined with John Kerry and a host of others on the ‘’World War Zero’’ effort. Nearly 50 years ago, twenty million Americans came together on the first Earth Day and put environmental issues front and center on the national political agenda. The message: policymakers at all levels of government will be held accountable by voters for their records on environmental stewardship and protection.
We need to unite America’s “grassroots” with its “grasstops” — to awaken a broad climate change voting majority that not only includes young people with passion, but businesses, the military, labor, farmers, energy providers, and subject matter experts alike. Only by linking these disparate groups — then broadening the coalition even further to include global leaders and citizens everywhere — can we galvanize action, command accountability, and unleash a clean energy transformation that will mitigate climate change and assure economic progress at the same time.
Q: Despite more attention from the media in recent years, it seems clear that many people still don't understand our admittedly complex energy system. What should communicators do differently or better to increase public understanding of energy?
Although it’s important to communicate energy issues in a way that is easy to understand for the broadest possible audience, in the case of the energy transition and the need to become a net-zero economy by 2050, it’s important to communicate that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the climate crisis.
Some are betting on one silver bullet solution: “wind and solar batteries by 2030 and we’re done.’’ That does not help us move any serious program to resolve the problem. Regional considerations are also important in multiple dimensions. When you look at different parts of our country, energy conditions are very, very different. Even as we speak about a transformation to lower carbon, that transformation will happen in different ways in different parts of the country. This applies to the electricity system, the service providers, and the very different regulatory structures we have in different parts of the country, which will call for quite different solutions.
Following on the EFI report on deep decarbonization efforts in California, it’s clear that what works for California might not work in Minnesota or New England. This picture alone tells you that there are enormous regional differences and we need to forge solutions that are tailored to regional assets and to regional innovation capabilities.
Q: Energy Futures Initiative is addressing an ambitious set of energy topics. Do you have a top three or top five list of topics that you think deserve further attention? If so, what's on that list?
I would emphasize three topics that deserve further attention: (1) the need for regional innovation strategies, (2) carbon dioxide removal, and (3) social equity.
I’ll say it again: Regional considerations are important in multiple dimensions. When you look at different parts of our country, the energy conditions – and the sources of energy – can look very different. Even as we speak about a transformation to a lower-carbon future, that transformation will happen in different ways in different parts of the country. This applies to the electricity system, the service providers, and the very different regulatory structures we have in different parts of the country.
Second, is the need for increased attention on carbon dioxide removal technologies. The IPCC report made it clear that we will not be able to keep the planet from reaching 1.5 degrees warming without taking carbon dioxide from the air. In September, EFI published a report, Clearing the Air: A Federal RD&D Initiative and Management Plan for Carbon Dioxide Removal Technologies. This an excellent example of how the United States, particularly the U.S. Department of Energy, can successfully establish an expanded federal research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) program to address climate change. The report provides a set of recommendations and detailed implementation plans for a comprehensive, 10-year, $10.7 billion RD&D initiative in the United States to bring new pathways for technological (including technology-enhanced natural) CDR to commercial readiness.
Last, but not least, is ensuring that our transition to a low-carbon future does not result in any more stranded communities. Policymakers must ensure that the energy transition improves lives, grows public acceptance of the widespread change required to address the climate crisis, and provides meaningful, well-paying jobs. At EFI, we developed a Green Real Deal (GRD), which is a framework for a strategy for deep decarbonization of U.S. energy systems by mid-century in ways that minimize costs, maximize economic opportunities, and promote social equity.
The GRD subscribes to the National Academy of Public Administration’s definition of social equity: “The fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract, and the fair, just and equitable distribution of public services, and implementation of public policy, and the commitment to promote fairness, justice, and equity in the formation of public policy.” However, to ensure social equity through this transition, we’ll also need political accountability. That is why movements such as World War Zero are crucial.
What's the best common-sense advice about communications you've received?
You need to clearly explain issues to members of the public in order to move people toward science-based solutions that they believe can work and improve lives.
What's the best common-sense advice about communications you've given to others?
Data and science craft better solutions than magical thinking about either the problem or possible solutions.