Here is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
Will Englund: This country is going to have more electric cars and trucks, and by 2035, it won’t be universal, but it is happening quickly. What is the oil sector in America going to look like when that happens?
Jennifer Granholm: Well, I would say that it’s going to be up to them. A lot of them understand that. They are now diversifying to be energy companies rather than oil and gas companies. I think Chevron just announced … that it was going to be investing $300 million in a fund to advance low-carbon technologies. So that’s a super important piece of an opportunity for them. But clearly, it’s going to be up to them to be more responsive to this. They could be investing in battery technology. They could be investing, obviously, in biofuels, which is different.
They can see where this is going. They can see that the globe is going to be demanding clean-energy solutions and carbon-zero solutions by 2050.
What are the means for diversification of their energy portfolios that will allow them to still be profitable? I think there’s plenty of opportunity if they are willing to go there.
WE: Is there a role for the Energy Department to guide or direct or, you know, nudge the companies and the sector as a whole?
JG: From a technology point of view, we are eager to deploy a lot of the research that has been happening in the labs. So, for example, carbon capture and sequestration technologies, particularly, are being advanced out of the [National Energy Technology Laboratory] in West Virginia.
They are working on all of this. Not just reducing the carbon emissions from coal, which they are doing, but from natural gas as well. The ability to do natural gas in a way that is even carbon negative is a huge opportunity for these companies. We want to partner with anyone that wants to be able to deploy these technologies. We’d just like to see more of it.
There’s an analogy here from my own experience in Michigan. We built a vehicle, a product that relied on gasoline. And we still do. And the question is, you know, as GM announces an all-electric fleet, they saw where this was heading, and they decided to diversify in the same way.
WE: If we go to clean energy, what’s the grid going to look like? Will we still have a grid the way we know it?
JG: Clearly the grid, its reliability and its capacity are a huge focus. I think you’ll see in the next package that [the White House] presents to Congress — right now, obviously, they’re focused on the covid rescue package — but there will be a jobs package next. And I fully expect that there will be a significant commitment to investing in the national grid, both expanding the lines for transmission, as well as investing in the resiliency of the grid. Both of those need to happen if we’re going to be adding all those electric vehicles and the demand for clean energy to our national grid.
WE: You tweeted the other day that what happened in Texas, and what happened in California in the summer heat there, just shows that we need to upgrade the grid. But was there anything that happened in Texas that was new to you, that made you think again about what kinds of changes are needed?
JG: A hand of friendship extended to Texas — to consider upgrading their connectivity to the national grid so that their neighbors can help them in times of crisis. [The grid in Texas has only minor links to the rest of the country, which some believe contributed to the problems there. It keeps the state free of federal electricity regulation.] Obviously, they have to winterize their energy system. I understand the desire to be independent. I get that that’s the ethos in Texas. But in emergencies, it would be good to know there’s backup.
WE: You talked about upgrading transmission lines. There are people who believe that the answer is to have more locally generated electricity around the country to try to break down this kind of rectangular grid we have, as they put it. What do you think of that? And there is new interest in mini-nuclear power plants.
JG: All of that is great. I’m very supportive of microgrids, of these small modular nuclear reactors, of the ability to have distributed energy resources, community-based solar attached to a microgrid. Those solutions are very exciting and could be, and certainly should be, part of the national system. We should be incentivizing communities to think about that so that they are not so dependent on, you know, poles with wires atop that were constructed 70 years ago.
So, yes, that is definitely a part of the technologies, too, that are being researched in the laboratories at the Department of Energy.
WE: Your predecessor [during the Obama administration], Ernest Moniz, played a part in reaching the Iran nuclear deal. There’s a lot of interest in trying to revive that deal. Would you be playing a part in that?
JG: Certainly the Department of Energy would be playing a role in that. And the experts who are nuclear scientists and physicists would be doing that. I would obviously rely upon the expertise of those who have that experience.
WE: What’s going to happen to coal miners in this country?
JG: Yeah, this is such an important question. In fact, we have a meeting today, the first meeting of the task force that Joe Biden created to address communities that have been coal and fossil fuel generators. We want to make sure that the technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, geothermal, hydrogen, are deployed. And these communities are the perfect place to demonstrate how these technologies can be used to get to our goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. So we are excited about really bringing jobs to these communities.
You saw, perhaps, the Brookings Institution report that said that these fossil communities are perhaps among the most ripe for the deployment of wind and solar technologies as well. So there are a boatload of clean-energy technologies that are consistent, perhaps, with the skills of those who have been doing mining, including, by the way, the mining of the critical materials that are necessary to build batteries.
The whole goal of this task force, as well as the focus on environmental justice, is to make sure that 40 percent of the benefits of clean-energy investment go to communities, like in West Virginia, in other places that have been left behind or have been disproportionately negatively affected by pollution.
WE: And can you persuade those communities to give it a try?
JG: [Senator] Joe Manchin [D-W.Va.] is a great example of this. As he will say, he doesn’t care about the coal companies. He cares about the coal miners. And so what do people need? And if they can see that jobs are coming in, these clean-energy sectors, that they have a future …
It’s not regulation that is causing coal to diminish in terms of its market share. It is the world that is saying: “We all want to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.” So what are the technologies that will get us there? And the people who represent those states are very bullish on technology solutions that can be taken to scale inside of their communities. And so are we.