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The Science of U.S. Energy: A Q&A with Secretary Ernest J. Moniz

From clean coal to infrastructure resilience, the new Secretary of Energy has plans for combating climate change
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DOE

When extreme weather such as Hurricane Sandy hits, energy infrastructure is often the first thing to fail. In a world that must adapt to climate change, building resilience into such infrastructure may prove key. That, and a number of other activities, help make up President Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy—and new Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz is charged with tackling them all during his term. (Moniz once served as an advisor to Scientific American as well as co-author of a feature article for the magazine, "The Nuclear Option.")

On December 12 Scientific American sat down with the new Secretary in an overheated conference room tucked in the back of a start-up grid-scale battery maker Urban Electric Power. The wide-ranging discussion touched on everything from the need for grid-scale energy storage to the future of nuclear weapons.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Why do we need grid-scale energy storage?
There are several reasons. It's about absorbing intermittent sources [of electricity] like solar and wind. Clearly, there are other things that one can do to help balance those kinds of intermittent supplies, like integrating [natural] gas, et cetera. But obviously storage gives you massive flexibility.

The issue has been the cost. That's where [Urban Electric Power] comes in. We all know a lot of these starting companies eventually hit a roadblock. But some of them don't. If they can get below $100 a kilowatt in a manufacturable system, that would be a significant place to be.

As we go more and more to smart grids and grids with intelligence, integrating distributed storage [into our grid infrastructure] will also be important. There are all kinds of issues with power quality, like frequency stability, et cetera. Storage technology has so many possibilities.

But isn't the home of the future going to have natural gas fuel cells and photovoltaics on the roof? Then maybe we don't need the grid?
Certainly for a well-developed economy like the U.S., it's not going to be one or the other. That would be a false choice. I think there will always be a place for some large, baseload [power] plants, et cetera, even as we have, I think, an increased emphasis on distributed generation [from technologies such as solar or fuel cells]. Of course, when you go to other places in the world, then the balance [for the power-generation portfolio] can be quite different. You might start from the distributed side and then, perhaps, integrate into a larger system depending on the economy.

Let me give you one example of where we see a different architecture emerging. Next year, there is really going to be a focus on infrastructure. In the climate context, it's the question of resilience of energy infrastructure against, well, Sandy, and other things of that type. Although I do want to emphasize that when we are looking at resilience of energy infrastructure it will be broader than just extreme weather events. It will also be cyber [security for the grid against hacking] as well as physical threats. There have been physical attacks on key substations [on the electrical grid], et cetera. There is actually the very issue of interdependence of infrastructures, which is itself a risk to infrastructure. Another Sandy example would be the interplay between electricity and transportation fuels. It wasn't a shortage of fuel [after Sandy that led to lines for gasoline]; it was a shortage of being able to access and use the fuel. So this resilient infrastructure will be a big deal.

As you think of this [kind of adaptation] in the developed-country context—if you can accomplish the energy services with less need for that supply and infrastructure—then you are better off. So that comes to things like efficiency, things like [light-emitting diodes, or LEDs], where the cost drop has been incredible. We are seeing a concomitant increase in deployment. We've gone rapidly from nothing basically to 20 million LEDs deployed. The cost is now coming below $10 retail and with $125 to $130 lifetime energy-cost savings, that's getting to be a deal that's hard to turn down.

To me, it's just clearly the future of lighting.

Switching tacks here, what about carbon dioxide capture and storage? Where does that technology stand today? Is it as ready as the new Environmental Protection Agency regulations imply?
First of all, it's ready in the sense that the technology is clearly there. Clean Air Act regulations have always been, I think the official terminology is, "technology forcing." But there's no question it's available. It's happening now.

There is a plant in North Dakota that has been sending huge amounts of CO2 into Canada for enhanced oil recovery [EOR] for years now. It has sequestered in EOR I think 20 megatons of CO2. The capture technologies for post-combustion have been employed, too, of course.

There's no doubt the technology exists. In fact, I was down at Kemper County in Mississippi a month ago and saw the almost complete Southern Company [CO2 capture and storage] plant down there. It's a monster. It's 550 megawatts. It's almost complete, not quite, but in 2014. The company has its long-term contracts in place for [the purchase of] electricity, for sulfuric acid, for ammonia and for carbon dioxide. It built a 60-mile pipeline to connect down to oil fields in southern Mississippi. It’s using a standard capture process, which is common in gasification plants, and it's a lignite gasification plant. It's [located at a] mine mouth. They mine the lignite right there and just put it in. In addition, interesting feature, no liquid effluents leave the site. So, you know, this is pretty neat.

What about on the legalities of long-term storage side? How has that been worked out?
That's going to be evolving, obviously. In the EOR context, we are producing mostly with naturally occurring CO2 300,000 barrels a day of oil. This is not so small. That's 60 megatons of CO2 per year.

An estimate of the potential for CO2 EOR done a few years ago for the Department of Energy—this has to be with big error bars—the estimate was a factor of 10 potential to go. So 3 million barrels a day and 600 megatons of CO2. And for that you ain't going to find that much CO2 except at things like power plants or large industrial plants that are making CO2.

There are clearly different issues [with CO2 storage in saline aquifers]. It's a whole different level of permitting, so we have to work through that. But we will only work through that once we start having these big projects. This coming year we believe we're going to have a lot of CO2 getting injected, hopefully in both the context of EOR and the aquifers.

There's a lot going on and that's part of our all of the above strategy. We're going to low carbon but we think all the fuels, with enough investment, are going to have a place in that low-carbon world. That's our basic philosophy.

Any big initiatives in the next few years?
Obviously on the energy front, our job fundamentally is to implement the climate action plan.

And then, in the science, just by the rhythm of things, I don't know if there will be a big initiative in the next few years. But certainly we're going to start a strategic look at what would be the next generation of major science facilities. Our labs tend to be the host, of course Brookhaven [National Laboratory] is nearby, of accelerators, neutron sources, light sources, et cetera. It's time to at least be ready when budgets are stronger.

Another big direction, of course, is the DOE has been the driver always of the next generation of large-scale computing. That's another place that should be extremely interesting.

Then the security side as well. The President has, since Prague in 2009, put out a very strong agenda in terms of the strategic stockpile [of nuclear weapons] but also controlling nuclear materials. You know we just did the [highly enriched uranium] deal completion on Tuesday: 500 tons of HEU [in the last shipment]. Megatons to Megawatts ended and now, much more, we're working with Russia and third countries. Just in the last five months, working together, we got all the HEU out of Vietnam and Hungary.

Does that mean we'll be turning the HEU in our warheads into fuel for nuclear power plants too?
We do.

I mean are we going to do more?
We will see. When called for, we will.

Are you having fun?
Absolutely.

But you like the job so far?
I like any job that I'm doing.

But they can't all be fun. This one is fun?
They're all fun. I make them all fun. 

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