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Meet the New Secretary of Energy Nominee: Ernie Moniz


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ernest-moniz

© Justin Knight. Courtesy of M.I.T.

Ernest J. Moniz, a nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who serves on Scientific American’s board of advisors, will be President Barack Obama’s pick to replace Nobel laureate Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. While Moniz has yet to win a Nobel, he served on the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future from 2010 to 2012 and has a long track record in government service, including a stint in the Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton.

Moniz is an “all of the above” physicist when it comes to energy policy. He has called on the Obama administration to encourage the construction of more nuclear power plants but also to support expansion of natural gas production and use, including fracking. He has argued that CO2 capture and storage (CCS) will be vital to any serious effort to cope with climate change, given the world’s ongoing reliance on fossil fuels, and oversaw a report calling for the expansion of electricity generated from deep underground heat, aka geothermal power. “Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy while still taking care of our air, our water and our climate,” Obama said on March 4 in announcing the pick. At the same event, the President announced the selection of  longtime regulator Gina McCarthy to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and of former Walmart Foundation head Sylvia Matthews Burwell for the Office of Management and Budget.

Moniz has argued that “all of the above” is a multi-pronged approach: energy efficiency to reduce demand for power, acceleration of the switch from coal to gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encouragement of innovation to reduce the cost of low-carbon technologies such as renewables and nuclear power as well as accelerated deployment, and finding ways to make CCS work.

Of course, the DOE is mostly concerned with the nation’s nuclear weapons legacy, including the suite of national laboratories (think Los Alamos, Sandia, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore…) that continue to search for new relevance more than two decades after the end of the Cold War. In fact, Moniz will have his hands full just trying to deal with the ongoing clean-up of that nuclear weapons legacy, including tanks of nuclear waste that continue to leak despite more than a decade of effort at the Hanford site in Washington State.

At the same time, it remains to be seen what, if any, resources Moniz will have at his disposal to achieve what he has called for in his work while at M.I.T. during the past decade as head of its energy initiative. For example, the DOE has offered $8 billion in loan guarantees to two new reactors under construction in Georgia but that is hardly the tripling of nuclear capacity Moniz and colleagues have called for in past work, including an article for Scientific American where has served on the Board of Advisors since 2009.

Above all, Moniz has called for more temperance in energy policy. “We’ve had technology du jour events quite regularly,” Moniz told Scientific American in 2010, about government enthusiasm for everything from corn ethanol to the hydrogen economy. “We just have to get something that is more stable.” Of course, to have a stable energy policy would require a coherent energy policy—and that may prove beyond any secretary’s reach.

About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Obama’s new Cabinet picks face big challenges – CNN | P00Y.COM 3:19 pm 03/4/2013

    [...] there's a new EPA sheriff in townDallas Morning News (blog)Washington Examiner -Scientific American (blog) -Washington Postall 127 news [...]

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  2. 2. Ethanol industry reacts positively to news of new head of EPA – Ethanol Producer Magazine 3:23 pm 03/4/2013

    [...] Lisa Jackson. The ethanol …Obama Picks New Cabinet Heads for Energy and EPADomestic FuelMeet the New Secretary of Energy Nominee: Ernie MonizScientific American (blog)all 127 news [...]

    Link to this
  3. 3. curiouswavefunction 3:31 pm 03/4/2013

    I like Moniz. He looks like a sensible realist who is treading a middle ground on energy, pushing for natural gas for the short-term while encouraging nuclear, solar and wind for the long-term.

    Link to this
  4. 4. hughrutledge 4:06 pm 03/4/2013

    What does “yet to win a Nobel” mean?

    Link to this
  5. 5. David Biello in reply to David Biello 5:15 pm 03/4/2013

    It means he doesn’t have a Nobel Prize like Dr. Chu. But maybe he will some day like his new boss?

    Link to this
  6. 6. sjn 6:00 pm 03/4/2013

    So basically he’s another don’t rock the boat guy – give everyone a little bit of something and hope they all go away happy. Not a real solution to global warming based on virtually all the current writings of climate change scientists, who say if we burn anything close to a significant fraction of the known fossil fuel reserves we’ll zoom way past to 2C guideposts

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  7. 7. eco-steve 6:15 pm 03/4/2013

    Nothing really encouraging for the environment here, just the same old red herrings. Whether it be republicans or democrats, the USA’s environment policy is slugged by political inertia. The world needs decisive leaders, men of vision and not skeletons out of the liberal cupboard. US policy on ecology is suicidal. And it is dragging the world down with it.

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  8. 8. littleredtop 8:34 pm 03/4/2013

    It would appear that the Bagpipe found himself another long haired hippie wing-nut to perpetuate his ongoing Marxist/Leninist initiative of destruction. This guy will no doubt promote more screeching windmills to coverup the cries of the people.

    Link to this
  9. 9. sethdiyal 11:51 pm 03/4/2013

    Chu was as antinuclear as they come, a tool of Big Oil and traitor to his country spending almost $100B on DOE stimulus fund on worthless wind and solar and less than $250M annually on nuclear.

    He literally gave so much money to wind and solar that they didn’t need to risk a dime of their own capital while his nuke loan guarantees had terms so onerous none have been issued – just simple propaganda.

    All the real science to date shows that had he spent even $5B of that $100B on advanced technology like the LFTR/DMSR, units would now be pouring out of factories and on to railcars at a penny a kwh, the lives of millions would be annually would be on the way to being saved from air pollution, and AGW would be so over. Chu even handed over America’s entire MSR database to the Chinese.

    The design ready to build IFR as embodied by the 200MW GE PRISM could have been complete by now. GE has a standing offer to build a pair of these units for the UK, for the cost of nuke waste processing contract. But not in the US and not under CHU.

    While Chu sent a pittance to the HTGR (pebble bed) the Chinese actually started building one. Chu’s response was to spend another million on a report on the technology.

    The Obama administration is “all the above” in press releases and seldom if ever mentions nuclear in that context. In reality, it is passively antinuclear and does nothing to see if advanced nukes are a tool in the AGW war. The White House is on Big Oil’s payroll promoting fithy GHG as bad a coal and air pollution spewing gas as clean energy and wind/solar with gas backup as payment for Big Oil campaign donations.

    Here’s IFR advocate Stephen Kirsch begging the nuclear obstructionists betraying their country in the White house to let the IFR go.

    Google “why-obama-should-meet­till”

    Even if Moniz can at least change the Obama direction only slightly an increase in nuclear support from the current almost non existant levels would be an improvement.

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  10. 10. curiouswavefunction 9:21 am 03/5/2013

    #8: Yes, nothing screams “Marxist/Leninist” as loudly as natural gas and nuclear power.

    Link to this
  11. 11. ochar 9:30 am 03/7/2013

    And that will do Freemasonry, which puts and takes, candidates to presidencies of the world, even in communist countries, with the discovery in Panama: The Oceanogenic Power, hydraulics, sufficient, for electricity; to move the transport worldwide, and prepare for the investment of the magnetic field of the earth?

    Keeping quiet, enviously at, to keep it secret until after his planned World War III?

    You agree?

    Link to this
  12. 12. ochar 9:35 am 03/7/2013

    PhD. Moniz, hope you are more scientific than fanatical, of anachronistic philosophical theories.

    Link to this
  13. 13. LarryW 3:08 pm 03/7/2013

    Please, isn’t there any where to go to get away from the constant drone of comments from people who couldn’t compete with an amoeba in intelligence or rational thought?

    Link to this
  14. 14. dalbert 10:58 pm 03/7/2013

    The comments are depressing. I can’t figure out how we can possibly rely on natural gas as a “bridge fuel,” when the IEA WEO 2012 says we can only build some limited amount of new fossil fuel infrastructure and stay below 2 degrees C of warming. I hope someone is doing the math and making a transition plan that will get us off of fossil fuel fast enough. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, only incrementally better than coal (depending on how much methane leakage you assume). I don’t think it’s wise to depend on CCS for more than relatively small quantities.

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  15. 15. jackelope64 5:58 am 03/8/2013

    Some of those “hippie wing nuts” surely invented much of the science used daily by conservatives and liberals alike. What ever happened to rational discussion?

    Link to this
  16. 16. Another Week of GW News, March 10. 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered 10:04 am 03/11/2013

    [...] 2013/03/04: SciAm:Obs: Meet the New Secretary of Energy Nominee: Ernie Moniz [...]

    Link to this
  17. 17. New Faces Will Shape Science Policy in Obama s Second Term | Ultimate Fitness Blog 2:34 pm 04/27/2013

    [...] Meet the New Secretary of Energy Nominee: Ernie MonizMoniz is an “all of the above” physicist when it comes to energy policy [...]

    Link to this

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