Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm on cleaning up ‘clean’ energy

As much as climate change changes life on Earth as we know it, the proposed solutions will also change everyday life. 2023 is on track to be the hottest year on record, and unless we want to break that record year after year, every country on Earth will have to work together to transition away from fossil fuels. The US, the world’s largest oil and gas producer, has more work to do than other countries.

So, how do you overhaul our entire energy system with the clock ticking? If you build all this infrastructure, how do you do it without running over communities? And how do you prevent the damage caused by drilling and mining in the past, especially when we need many crucial minerals to make EV batteries, wind turbines and solar panels?

The edge spoke with Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm shortly after the Department of Energy announced $7 billion in funding for hydrogen production hubs in the US. It’s a textbook example of a potential alternative energy source that has opened a whole new can of worms.

The environmental benefits of hydrogen are still disputed. Some of the hubs will run on renewable energy. Others will be made with fossil fuels that still produce greenhouse gases. The Biden administration thinks it can clean up that pollution with controversial carbon capture technology. But many communities don’t want industrial infrastructure—pipelines and storage—to increase the health risks they already face after decades of environmental injustice.

That is to say, it’s complicated. In the interview, Granholm talked about how she might navigate those tricky next steps.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The DOE recently announced billions in funding for hydrogen hubs in the US. Hydrogen as a fuel has been around for a while. Why prioritize making more of it now?

Everyone always says renewable energy, fantastic, but the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. How do you ensure that you have clean energy 24/7? And how do you ensure that you have clean energy that contributes to the decarbonization of the most difficult to decarbonize sectors such as heavy industry and heavy freight transport for example? And so I think that clean hydrogen is not for every use, but certainly for those important areas as a filler, as a Swiss army knife, as they call it.

Trucks now run on diesel, which of course causes pollution. If they can run on fuel cells, that problem is solved. Equipment used in ports, marinas, sustainable aviation fuel, [the] creation of green ammonia, steel and industrial heat, data centers. These types of applications are, I think, the most suitable for this.

Some of the hubs will use gas to make hydrogen, and some environmental and climate justice groups say this perpetuates dependence on fossil fuels. Why choose projects that rely on gas instead of only financing projects that make hydrogen using renewable energy?

We cannot flip the switch and completely transform our energy system overnight. We must have this transition. If these production sites are powered by natural gas, they must all have carbon capture and sequestration and must not allow carbon pollution to enter the atmosphere.

I fully understand the desire, as many in the environmental justice community have said, not to continue the use of fossil fuels. But you know, the reality is that people are going to drive cars, and not everyone is driving electric vehicles. Not every company can switch to electric vehicles tomorrow. This transition will happen.

Even clean energy has an ecological footprint. Proponents are already concerned about the mining of minerals used, for example, in batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy. How do you weigh these types of costs and minimize any damage?

Well, this is what I would say. First, if we want to electrify our transportation system, we need batteries. And the batteries will need the crucial minerals that power those batteries. So someone is going to mine them. Is it possible for us as a nation to be the leader in sustainable mining practices? You bet it is. Is it possible for us to work with countries that do this in a sustainable way, in a way that respects indigenous countries and peoples who have major concerns about land use? Can we do this? Yes. The solar panels, the wind turbines are made of steel, they are made of glass. That glass has to be produced somewhere. Can we produce it in a sustainable way? Can we create the jobs here in America? Yes.

We can’t create these products from scratch, but we can do it in a way that we incentivize companies, provide carrots and sticks, so they can produce in the cleanest way possible.

America is in the best position to be able to do that, rather than relying on countries whose values ​​we may not share, who may not share our respect for the environment, or who, for example, use child labor to extract minerals from nature . Soil.

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The DOE funds hydrogen and carbon removal hubs — two technologies that critics sometimes say could create new environmental injustices. I’ve heard from communities that don’t want to share a fence with these industrial facilities and pipelines that connect them. What would you say to a resident who is concerned about this?

We need to recognize that so much carbon pollution, and pollution in general, occurs in disadvantaged communities because of a history of racism. Those are the places that, if you will, need the most love to help remove air emissions for those communities. For example, in Cancer Alley on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, so many people are experiencing health impacts due to pollution from heavy industry. But if we had a solution that removes diesel fumes from the air, it could help repair what has been a history and legacy of pollution.

Clean energy has become embroiled in culture wars, and we often see those conversations veer into questions of personal choice – what if someone wants to keep their gas stove, for example. How do we get out of that trap and see the bigger picture?

First, let me be clear: President Biden does not want to ban gas stoves. We want to make all appliances efficient so that people don’t waste their money on energy that is not for its intended use, on heaters or whatever.

These are all distractions. Our planet is on fire. All people have to do is look at the number of extreme weather events over the past year. We have record temperatures everywhere in the country. This will be the hottest year on record because of our actions as human beings.

All of this is to say that we must move forward with a sense of urgency, the same sense of urgency felt by the communities experiencing these extreme weather events. And we can’t be distracted by arguments that are political or a side issue to what the main show is. The main show is that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions.

Are you concerned that a future president will undo all of this administration’s efforts to promote sustainable energy?

Naturally. Of course, we are very concerned about that – about going backwards and contributing further to the warming of our planet.

International climate conversations coming at the end of the month. One of the biggest questions is whether countries can agree on a global plan to achieve this phase out fossil fuels. What do you think should be done?

I think as countries we all need to come together and commit to sticking to the goals we have set. And for the countries that have not set goals, they should set them. We cannot stand idly by as passive bystanders while our shared home, this planet, burns.

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