Energy secretary: U.S. must be energy independent

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, May 9, 2016

Energy security remains a top concern, even with growing U.S. supplies of oil, natural gas and renewable energy, said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, kicking off a public forum on energy policies, electric markets and the grid in Des Moines on Friday.

“Energy security for the United States is not simply a national issue but an international issue,” Moniz said. “The insecurity of our friends in Europe, for example, directly influences what we can do.

“And the United States should not lose sight … that we’re still a major oil importer,” he said. “And for that reason, we remain strongly focused on reducing oil dependence.”

That means a continued push to increase fuel efficiencies and to move toward electric vehicles.

“And very relevant to this state is a need for the continued development of alternative fuels — like biofuels and advanced biofuels. They’re all central to what we do,” Moniz said.

Moniz, who will speak at Iowa State University’s commencement Saturday, fielded questions from the Register:

Question: How do you respond to concerns about increased consumer costs to implement the Clean Power Plan (designed to reduce the carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change)?

Moniz: First, coal use has dropped from about a half to a third over the last decade, and most of that is due to low-cost natural gas. Many choose to attribute it to policy, when the reality is that it’s been a marketplace phenomenon.

Secondly, in implementing the Clean Power Plan, an absolute key, designed into the rule, is flexibility. … Targets were developed based on the resources, but once the targets were developed, the thought was states can design more effective plans to economically reach the goals.

The reality is that we need to go to a lower-carbon future. I certainly believe that we, and just about every country in the world, will continue on this pathway. … One can respond by pointing out what can’t be done, but I like to respond by looking at what can be done to resolve problems.

Q: Iowa is moving into developing cellulosic ethanol — made from corn stalks, husks and other residue — but we’re still debating whether corn ethanol is better for the environment than gasoline. Why?

Moniz: With just about any new technology — whether it’s fuels or wind, LED lighting, carbon capture — typically you start off with higher costs than the incumbent technology. And then you work at the R&D, and demonstration and deployment, and the costs come down.

The same is true for ethanol. Starting with corn-based ethanol, it wasn’t that long ago, where the argument was: Is corn ethanol a wash or negative, in terms of CO² emissions, relative to gasoline.

Now, with continuing progress, we would say the cycle of CO² corn ethanol is probably a good 20 percent lower than gasoline. So it’s definitely a lower carbon footprint, but cellulosic ethanol would have a considerably lower footprint yet again. That’s where we’re working.

Q: There’s a lot of debate around EPA’s decision to reduce the amount ethanol that must be blended into the national fuel supply. Do we face a national blend wall?

Moniz: A driver of the blend wall problem, shall we say, is the success … of more efficient vehicles.

We should remember that one of the major goals in looking for a clean-energy future is demand-side reduction. It inherently challenges existing business models that are based on increasing production, whether it’s fuel or electricity.

That’s the broader issue. But now, because of the way the legislation was written, it’s brought in this blend-wall challenge.

I personally feel that we need to have more flex-fuel vehicles that can, in fact, use different mixes of petroleum-based fuels and alcohol-based fuels.

There’s no technology miracle needed. We know how to do it. We know it’s not very expensive. The question is: Is that a direction we want to go?

Our laboratory analyses have indicated that something like a 30 percent mixture is optimal.