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Obama: Good Instincts, Solid Achievements, Weak Surrogates

Here we have a President who has been emphatic on green energy and has put money where his mouth is: $90 billion in the Stimulus Bill (ARRA), highest car mileage standards ever (CAFÉ, 50+ mpg), and the first Clean Air Act regulations for mercury from coal electric power generation plants.

The President had good intentions in nominating Nobel Prize winner Chu to head the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and I admire Chu’s commitment and intellect, but frankly, the experience wasn’t a good one. His relations with Democrats were not good, and his relationship with Republicans was non-existent.

The Secretary was aloof and not very political, although he somewhat compensated for those qualities by being open and interactive with the scientific community and industry. But frankly, the national laboratories were “iced out” of communications for quite awhile, and the Secretary not only didn’t have an open dialogue with industry, he “staged” interactions and meetings — there was no ongoing free flow of information to impact thought, policies or actions. 

So in term two, I thought the President would learn from this past experience — but sadly, no. MIT’s Dr. Ernest Moniz is his nominee. He is a former Clinton Administration retread with a solid intellect, but he also has much of the same weaknesses as his predecessor — just without the Nobel Prize.

Moniz is not an administrator that can run a $26 billion federal agency.

Moniz is not known for an easy manner and solid political skills, but, similar to Chu, he is academically superior and aloof. 

Moniz is not known as an “interactor with industry.”

But the fatal flaw may be none of the above. The media has labeled Moniz as “a strong supporter of second generation nuclear power and natural gas.” And that’s what troubles me the most, even as I blend natural gas with many of my renewable and efficiency projects.

This focus and expertise is back towards the twentieth century world view — analogous to focusing on main frame computers and wired copper telephone lines. We are in the twenty first century with distributed, self healing communications and information systems.  We have a severely aging electric grid that is open to outages from minor storms, poor electric power quality (surges sags and transients), and breaches in cyber security, which already costs us hundreds of billions of dollars in lost economic activity.  Nuclear power plants (which have a host of other vulnerabilities, costs and risks) are not the answer.

The Moniz nomination might be an easy Senate confirmation, but it does not position the United States into a more agile, resilient, distributed energy system or one that maximizes energy efficiency, storage, and electric load management — which we know is always less expensive than electric generation from any source and technology. 

The Secretary of Energy for the twenty first century needs to be someone with solid academic skills, but also with proven business experience and innate political skills. The Secretary must interact with every political faction in Congress, and also focus on the media, laboratories, universities and, most importantly, the private sector. Staged public meetings should be avoided. 

Governing is not easy, but choices of leaders and their portfolio of attributes send messages.  Having PhD’s are great, but a portfolio of experiences and the “human” quality needs to have equal billing. The issues are too important, and incremental improvements or “more of the same” is not an option.

Lead image: U.S. Capitol via Shutterstock

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