Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm on cleaning up ‘clean’ energy

Photo collage of Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.
Photo Illustration by Cath Virginia / The Verge | Photos by Dee Dwyer for The Verge

The US is the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas. Can Granholm chart a path to a more sustainable future?

As much as climate change is reshaping life on Earth as we know it — the solutions posed are also going to change everyday life. 2023 is on track to be the hottest in the books, and unless we want to shatter that record year after year, every country on Earth will have to work together to wean themselves off fossil fuels. The US, the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas, has more work to do than others.

So, how do you remake our entire energy system while the clock is ticking? When you build all this infrastructure, how do you do so without steamrolling over communities in the process? And how do you avoid the harms caused by drilling and mining in the past, especially when we’ll need a lot of critical minerals to make EV batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels?

The Verge spoke with Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm shortly after the Department of Energy announced $7 billion in funding for hydrogen production hubs across the US. It’s a textbook example of a potential alternative energy source that has opened up a whole new can of worms.

The environmental benefits of hydrogen are still contested. Some of the hubs will run on renewable energy. Others will be made with fossil fuels that still produce greenhouse gas emissions. The Biden administration thinks it can clean up that pollution with controversial carbon capture technology. But a lot of communities don’t want that industrial infrastructure — pipelines and storage — adding to health risks they already face after decades of environmental injustice.

That’s all to say, it’s complicated. In the interview, Granholm spoke about how she might navigate those tricky next steps.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The DOE recently announced billions in funding for hydrogen hubs across the US. Hydrogen as a fuel has been around for a while. Why prioritize making more of it now?

Everybody always says renewable energy, fabulous, but the Sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. How do you make sure that you have clean energy that’s 24/7? And how do you make sure that you have clean energy that is helping to decarbonize the hardest to decarbonize sectors? Like heavy industry, heavy trucking, for example. And so I think clean hydrogen is not for every use but certainly for those important areas as a filler, as a Swiss Army knife, as they call it.

Trucks right now run on diesel, and those create pollution, obviously. Well, if they’re able to run on fuel cells, that takes care of that problem. Equipment used at ports, marinas, sustainable aviation fuel, [the] creation of green ammonia, steel and industrial heat, data centers. Those kinds of uses are, I think, prime for this.

A few of the hubs will use gas to make hydrogen — and some environmental and climate justice groups — say this perpetuates dependence on fossil fuels. Why choose projects that rely on gas instead of just funding projects that make hydrogen using renewable energy?

We can’t flip the switch and just completely transform our energy system overnight. We have to have this transition. If these production sites are powered by natural gas, they all must have carbon capture and sequestration and not allow for carbon pollution to go up into the atmosphere.

I completely understand the desire not to perpetuate, as many in the environmental justice community have said, any uses of fossil fuels. But you know, the reality is people will be driving cars, and not everybody is driving electric vehicles. Not every business can convert tomorrow to have electric vehicles. There will be this transition.

Even clean energy has an environmental footprint. Advocates are already concerned about mining minerals used in batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy, for instance. How do you weigh those kinds of costs and minimize any harms?

Well, here’s what I would say. One, if we’re going to electrify our transportation system, we’re going to need batteries. And the batteries are going to need the critical minerals that propel those batteries. So somebody’s going to be mining them. Is it possible for us to be the leader in sustainable practices for mining as a nation? You bet it is. Is it possible for us to partner with countries that do that in a sustainable way, in a way that respects Indigenous lands and peoples who have deep concerns over land being used? Can we do this? Yes. The solar panels, the wind turbines, they’re made with steel, they’re made with glass. That glass has to be produced somewhere. Can we produce it in a sustainable way? Can we create the jobs here in America? Yes.

We can’t create those products out of thin air, but we can do it in a way that we incentivize companies, provide carrots and sticks, so that they are producing, manufacturing in the cleanest way possible.

America is in the best position to be able to do that, rather than relying upon countries whose values we may not share. Who may not share our respect for the environment, or who may use child labor, for example, to extract minerals from the Earth.

Photo by Dee Dwyer for The Verge
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm pictured with Press Secretary Charisma Troiano.

The DOE is funding hubs for hydrogen and carbon removal — two technologies that critics sometimes say could create new environmental injustices. I’ve heard from communities that don’t want to share a fence line with these industrial facilities and pipelines that connect them. What would you say to a resident who’s concerned about that?

We have to acknowledge that so much carbon pollution, and pollution in general, is in disadvantaged communities because of a history of racism. Those are the places that are going to need the most TLC, if you will, to help remove the emissions from the air for those communities. For example, in Cancer Alley in the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, so many people are experiencing health impacts because of the pollution of heavy industry. But if we were to have a solution that removes diesel fumes from the air, that can help to repair what has been a history and a legacy of pollution.

Clean energy has gotten dragged into culture wars, and we often see those conversations devolving into questions of personal choice — what if someone wants to keep their gas stove, for instance. How do we get out of that trap to see what the bigger picture is?

First of all, let me just be clear, President Biden does not want to ban gas stoves. We want to make all appliances efficient so that people aren’t wasting their money on energy that is not going to its intended use, for stoves or for anything.

Those are all distractions. Our planet is on fire. All people have to do is look at what the number of extreme weather events has been this past year. We are at record-breaking temperatures all across the nation. This will be the hottest year that we have ever recorded because of our actions as human beings.

All of that is to say, we have got to propel forward with a sense of urgency, the same sense of urgency that is felt by the communities that are experiencing these extreme weather events. And we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by arguments that are political or are sideshows to what the main show is. The main show is that we must reduce our carbon emissions.

Are you concerned that a future president will undo all of this administration’s efforts to promote sustainable energy?

Of course. Of course we are very concerned about that — about going backward and contributing further to the heating of our planet.

International climate talks are coming up at the end of the month. One of the biggest questions is whether countries can agree on a global plan to phase out fossil fuels. What do you think needs to happen?

I think that we all have to get together as countries and commit to holding ourselves to the targets that we set. And for the countries that have not set targets, they need to set them. We cannot stand idly by as passive bystanders as our shared home, this planet, is on fire.

Source: The Verge Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm on cleaning up ‘clean’ energy