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Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz Says Government Can Help Clean Energy Innovation

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz takes part in a press conference at the end of the 2015 meeting of the International Energy Agency Governing Board on Nov. 18, 2015 in Paris.
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U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz takes part in a press conference at the end of the 2015 meeting of the International Energy Agency Governing Board on Nov. 18, 2015 in Paris.

Government officials in charge of energy policy from around the world are scheduled to gather in San Francisco on Wednesday and Thursday for the seventh Clean Energy Ministerial. It's a conference to serve as a follow-up to December's climate change talks in Paris.

Organizers describe it as the "world's largest and most forward-leaning countries working together to accelerate the global transition to clean energy." Along with U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, government officials involved in energy policy from China, Australia, Argentina and Chile are scheduled to attend. Representatives from non-governmental organizations and companies working in energy policy will be there as well.

Ministers plan to discuss ways to actually achieve the goals set in the Paris climate change agreement. Part of that involves spurring companies to develop new, cleaner technologies.

Secretary Moniz, who was heavily involved in last year's climate talks, spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about funding clean energy innovation and why he thinks the Obama administration's clean energy plans will continue after the election.

Interview Highlights

On funding clean energy technology

Last year we had our third open call. That is, out there in the United States, bring us your best ideas for breakthrough new energy technologies. We funded a very, very strong set of technologies. However, they represent only about 2 percent of the proposals. It's hard to believe having the funding available for only 2 percent of proposals is taking advantage of America's innovative capacity.

So in fact, our administration has proposed that we increase the funding from roughly $290 million to $1 billion over this five-year ramp-up period of mission innovation. We are investing in these companies so that within a few years, they can be market-ready for the initial stages of private investment.

Are you saying there is a role for government in advancing innovation?

Absolutely. I think the government role is often undersold in the way it permeates across our innovation system.

For one thing, of course, the basic science that underpins just about any technology development typically is developed through federal funding of research performed by universities, laboratories and our companies.

On making clean energy affordable

Well first of all, I think we do have to recognize that in some of the technologies like LEDs, like solar, like onshore wind, we have seen pretty remarkable cost reductions in the last six, seven years. And we have seen as well very substantial upticks in their deployment.

LED costs have dropped probably 90 percent in the last six or seven years. And in solar, we have between 10 and 20 times as much deployment as we had earlier in this administration, because costs have come down between 50 and 60 percent in that time period.

So we're making a lot of progress, but I think that we still must focus on continuing deployment in the near term, and continuing innovation for the longer term.

On Trump's call to "cancel the Paris climate agreement"

Well first of all, let me reinforce the point that I will not comment on any candidate's position. But the Paris agreement is not binding on targets. However, all the steps that have been taken are based upon existing authorities and following what are typically many-year processes spelled out in law to establish rules.

If any president wants to change those, they will have to go through the same multiyear process to alter those. And so, those will go forward unless, again, a new president and a new Congress decide to redo the entire processes of rule making, and I do not believe there would be a lot of success in that attempt. So I believe what President Obama's put in place will keep us on our trajectory to meeting our Paris commitments.

On how energy ministers from other countries are reacting to U.S. political rhetoric

In this arena, the climate talks, and in other areas that the Department of Energy is engaged in very heavily — like nuclear security, for example — I would say the current dialogue in the United States is causing some concern and some queries, shall we say, of my fellow ministers across the world. But again, I think the important response is as we just discussed: Here's what we are doing, here is what is in place, here is what is going to stay in place going forward into the next administration.

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