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Analysis - Moniz, Obama's choice for energy secretary

UNITED STATES: America's next energy secretary, most likely, will be Ernest Moniz, a physicist known for balancing science and policy, and for his mop of dark grey hair.

Obama nominations... Ernest Moniz talking at Epoch foundation anniversary
Obama nominations... Ernest Moniz talking at Epoch foundation anniversary

If the professor is confirmed by the US Senate - as seems almost certain - his tenure will differ in tone from that of his predecessor Steven Chu, whose department had billions of dollars in stimulus grants to disburse. Moniz will undoubtedly focus more on climate change and shale gas.

At the respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Moniz has headed the energy initiative, which publishes broad peer-reviewed reports.

Critics have lambasted what is seen as Moniz's emphasis on natural gas as the predominant source of US electricity generation until 2050. It is also unclear whether Moniz will steer the Department of Energy (DOE) towards more recognition of how easily and cheaply wind can be integrated into the grid.

Shale cheerleader

The 2011 MIT study The Future of Natural Gas, which Moniz co-chaired, described the environmental impacts of shale development as "challenging but manageable" and said research and regulation were needed to minimise them.

Additional gas-fired capacity will be needed as back-up if variable and intermittent renewables, especially wind, are introduced on a large scale, it said.

Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Centre for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, noted that Moniz does support renewables and understands there must be an energy revolution because of climate change. But he said it is "disturbing that [Moniz] is arguably leading the charge for natural gas – it is not a clean energy source."

He added: "It's disappointing that the amount of time and energy spent on fracking will divert funds from renewable energy and a smart grid."

And Ron Lehr, former chair and commissioner of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, disagrees with Moniz' use of the term intermittent for wind – "it's a natural weather-based variability" – while he noted that wind's integration need not require more gas-fired capacity, just more flexible gas-fired capacity.

Additionally, if there is no price signal for the market to build such plants, "that's the fault of market not wind," he said.

Presidential credentials

In addition to his MIT work, Moniz was under-secretary of energy under president Bill Clinton, on the president's council of advisers on science and technology, and was associate director of the White House office of science and technology policy.

"I have great admiration for him; he's a dedicated and gifted scientist with a longstanding interest in policy, and he's extraordinarily well informed about the full spectrum of potential US and global energy solutions," said Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of Natural Resources Defence Council's energy programme, who has worked with Moniz.

Long-time energy consultant Robert Kahn cautioned, however, that there is often a gap between what an energy secretary can say and what he can achieve as head of a $25-billion bureaucracy.

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