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Ernie Moniz: An Inspired Choice for DOE Secretary

Our industry should rally behind anyone who knows how to spell "photovoltaic." Especially at the DOE, which is a large, complex, slow-moving, virtually radioactive bureaucracy. Not only can Dr. Moniz spell photovoltaic, he's demonstrated the engineering, policy and management skills that it takes to succeed at the head of the DOE. And if his track record is any indication, he'll be terrific for the next stage of the solar industry's growth.

Editor's Note: Multiple sources are reporting that Ernie Moniz is to be nominated as the next energy secretary.

According to the DOE website, their mission is " assure America's security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions." Of the DOE's $27.2 billion 2013 budget request, 66% is directed towards nuclear energy. Specifically, $11.5 billion is for the National Nuclear Security Administration, $5.8 billion goes towards nuclear waste clean up, $5 billion is directed towards "Science" and $2.3 billion is for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

With their budget and DNA so closely tied to the nuclear industry, it's no surprise that Dr. Moniz is a nuclear physicist. He also has the right policy credentials; he served as DOE Under Secretary from 1997 to 2001, and Associate Director in the Office of Science and Technology from 1995 to 1997. As Director of the MIT Energy Initiative, he's successfully combined multidisciplinary research with technically sound policy. He's practical, and knows we need technologies such as fracked natural gas as a bridge to a renewable future.

Enough of the formal bio. What does Dr. Moniz know about solar? He's on the Board of Advisors of the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems. He's advised a number of solar finance and technology companies. He's actively supported solar technology projects alongside hydrocarbon production within the MIT Energy Initiative. He "gets" the practical realities of solar R&D. Although more research is needed into solar, what we really need is development — and especially deployment. 

Four years ago solar panels were $4/watt. At the time we needed cheaper solar equipment to make the economics work for customers. Now, with panels less than $1/watt and likely to stay that way, the emphasis in the solar industry has shifted towards getting glass on the roof. Of course, there are still plenty of opportunities for technology R&D. Sunshot funding initiatives are looking at clever ways to reduce soft costs — as well as driving panel and inverter prices even lower. But the focus now must be on deployment, where the obstacles are more political than technical.

Obsolete or simply inappropriate policies are the biggest barrier to widespread solar adoption in the U.S. We need to solve financing problems, permitting problems, and interconnection problems for systems of all sizes. Secretary Chu did a yeoman's job on behalf of the solar industry as solar panels went from expensive to cheap (and he’s got the scars to prove it). Now we need someone who has extensive engineering knowledge to stand up to incumbent energy providers when they complain that solar doesn't work, is unsafe or simply too expensive. Dr. Moniz has the right combination of DC political skills coupled with practical energy technology knowledge. He has the demonstrated ability to put the right policies in place — policies that won't require a huge new funding initiative for the solar industry.

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