Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Meet the New Secretary of Energy Nominee: Ernie 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.

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

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