To-Do List for the New Secretary of Energy: More Efficiency. More Renewables. Less Carbon.

In 2008, Ernest Moniz, director of MIT’s Energy Initiative (MITEI), wrote an open letter to the newly-elected President Barack Obama, offering his recommendations on energy policy.  He discussed the urgent need to control global warming pollution, stating, “We must begin moving toward a low-carbon energy future now.”

Moniz, Obama’s pick for Secretary of Energy, will soon be in a prime position to make good on his own recommendations.

As a scientist, Moniz is obviously a firm believer in the power of clean energy technology. MITEI projects under his tenure included windows that generate electricity, batteries built by viruses, and a biofuel made from yeast.  But he also believes that technology must be complemented by policy in order to effect real change.  As he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2006, in order to address global warming, we must “have the will to take more than baby steps."

Meeting the Obama administration’s climate and energy goals will certainly take more than baby steps, especially from the DOE. But the agency has plenty of scope—and the authority--to make significant progress in cutting global warming pollution. In this regard, it’s helpful that Moniz is a policy expert as well as a respected scientist. We so often, as in the case with fuel efficiency, have the technical solutions at hand. We just need leadership and the right policies to put them into action.

We did it with cars. Thanks to President Obama’s historic fuel efficiency standards, we’re now on track to cut global warming pollution equivalent to the amount produced by 72 coal-fired power plants. Buildings could be next. Commercial and residential buildings account for 70 percent of America’s electricity demand, and yet the way our buildings consume energy—in how they’re built and how they’re used--is often highly inefficient. There are numerous ways to tackle this issue, but the DOE can do its part by keeping up to date with issuing appliance and equipment efficiency standards. In recent years the DOE has fallen behind on updating and issuing new standards, leaving an estimated $3.7 billion in savings for consumers and businesses on the table, and allowing the release of an extra 40 million metric tons of carbon pollution—the equivalent of that produced by about 10 coal-fired power plants.

The DOE can also use its own purchasing power and its knowledge of the market to get more energy-saving products into buildings, such as high-performance windows and efficient HVAC units. By connecting buyers and vendors and coordinating high-volume purchases, the DOE can help make these products more affordable and more widely used.

In addition to efficiency, continuing to support renewable energy research and development is critical in the fight to stabilize our climate. The renewable energy industry has grown rapidly in the past few years and is already showing great promise, as both a source of good jobs as well as a viable means of reducing carbon pollution. But economic and political uncertainty threatens to stall this growth. A continued push from the DOE can help get more renewable technology deployed and meeting our energy needs, instead of locking in our reliance on dirty fossil fuels.

As Under Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, Moniz was known for being able to work well with the diverse constituencies the DOE serves. It’s a skill that will surely come into play as President Obama works to deliver on his promise of tackling global warming pollution and moving forward with clean energy. With strong leadership from the President and at the DOE, this country can start putting more climate and clean energy solutions into place, and work toward a safer, more stable climate, for ourselves and for future generations.

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