U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on Aug. 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
In her first official visit as the nation’s top energy official, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm returned to Berkeley last week to promote the Biden administration’s clean energy agenda.
Granholm, a UC Berkeley graduate and former scholar at the Goldman School of Public Policy, on Friday reviewed desalination and battery storage technology innovations at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), where she once worked as a project scientist.
“This lab is doing amazing research on some of the biggest problems facing California,” she said. “There's research that they're doing here that is directly applicable to people's lives. We want to take these solutions to scale.”
In a subsequent interview with KQED, Granholm said the U.S. needs to “act with urgency” to reduce its massive consumption of fossil fuels that produce planet-warming gas emissions, sparking more frequent extreme weather events, like the devastating wildfires now burning across California and throughout the West.
Her visit, which included a tour of several solar-powered homes in Berkeley, also comes on the heels of the latest climate assessment from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a major report that details the dangerously accelerating pace of climate change and underscores the urgent need for humans to dramatically reduce emissions.
“The West is on fire, our hair should be on fire,” Granholm said. “If this [report] isn't an exclamation point, if this isn’t a flashing code red on the fact that we have to act with urgency, I don't know what is.”
A banner takeaway from the report, she noted: We still have time to stave off catastrophic warming this century. And doing so, she said, requires major infrastructure upgrades.
“We have got to get clean energy technology on our transmission grid,” Granholm said.
Residential solar, she added, is crucial to meeting the Biden administration’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035.
“Solar is part of the lowest hanging fruit of how we're going to deploy the number of gigawatts that the United States needs,” said Granholm, who visited California less than two weeks after the U.S. Senate passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that would send billions of dollars to the state for highway, bridges, and public transportation projects.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Berkeley Lab estimates that 40% of U.S. electricity generation could come from solar by 2035. It’s roughly 3% today. How do we get from here to there?
We need to make sure that we have the level of resiliency and capacity on the electric grid, that it is able to take on that clean energy generation. We need to be able to empower people to be able to put solar on their homes, seamlessly and affordably, so that we have distributed electricity [on-site generation] through solar on people's homes.
One of the most successful California climate policies is the Renewables Portfolio Standard, which requires all utilities in the state to source half of their electricity sales from clean, renewable sources. The U.S. Senate’s infrastructure bill left out a similar type of policy. Will the Biden administration support an infrastructure bill without a mandate for utilities to buy clean energy?
The president 100% supports a clean electricity standard that is similar to what you have in California. He could not get bipartisan agreement for it in the bipartisan bill. But there is a second step, which is the Build Back Better agenda, which is also known as reconciliation. Ridiculous word, but nonetheless, it is in that [Senate bill that can pass by a simple majority], and the president is very much pushing for a robust electricity standard.
He's pushing for it because it's great for the planet, but he also sees the economic opportunity for the country in that. All of the nation's solar panels now that are on people's roofs are made elsewhere. And we simply allowed that to happen. And the president is saying no more. We are not going to watch our manufacturing capability just walk away. Incentivizing through tax credits, solar, wind, clean energy technologies, so that we can be competitive globally and we can deploy those technologies in the United States, is all part of that agenda.
Another item not in the Senate’s infrastructure bill is the Civilian Climate Corps. In June, California teenagers marched for weeks from Paradise to San Francisco, demanding that Congress pass legislation by the end of summer 2021 to fund this initiative. What do you say to them?
They are right and the president agrees with them. And that's why that policy, too, is in this second step [reconciliation bill]. If a Civilian Climate Corps is funded, [Biden's] goal is to put a whole new diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands, our waters, to bolster community resilience, to advance environmental justice, all the while paving the way for good-paying union jobs. President Biden sees that as a fundamental element to the climate portions of his agenda. And he's pushing for that in Congress as well.
The president signed an order pushing for 50% of vehicles sold in the U.S. to be electric by 2030. How do you sell folks on electric vehicles who see them as a lifestyle choice for wealthy city dwellers?
We need to make sure that these vehicles are affordable for people. And one of the strategies in doing that is at the point of purchase. When you go to a dealer, you don't want this electric vehicle to be more expensive than a regular gas-powered vehicle. [People should] get a refundable tax credit right there, to bring down the cost so that there is parity between electric vehicle cost and regular gasoline vehicles.
You also have to make sure that people in all areas, in lower-income areas, in rural areas, have access to be able to fuel those vehicles. And that means charging stations. In that bipartisan bill that was passed by the Senate, there was $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations. California, by the way, is going to get $384 million for electric vehicle charging out of that bill. The president is all in on making it easy for people.
Are you pushing for a sped up timeline on reducing U.S. carbon emissions based on the release of the IPCC's latest climate report?
Yes, 1,000%. We have to act with urgency on eliminating methane emissions and carbon emissions. We have to act with urgency on deploying these technologies that are coming out of our labs and our private sector. We have got to get this clean energy technology on our transmission grid. The administration feels this sense of urgency, which is why the president has put out these big, hairy, audacious goals of getting to 100% clean electricity by 2035, getting to a net zero-carbon economy by 2050. And he wants to lead the world and demonstrate that we can do what we are calling others to do, which is, of course, to meet their global commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
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