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What Can the DOE Actually Do on Climate?

WASHINGTON — Jennifer M. Granholm, who faced a confirmation hearing Wednesday morning as President Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Energy, is widely expected to play a central role in the administration’s efforts to confront climate change.

But that raises a question: How much can an energy secretary realistically do to help reduce America’s planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions?

The agency controls some powerful levers that could help advance clean-energy technologies: a network of 17 national laboratories that conduct cutting-edge research, tens of billions of dollars in unused federal loan guarantees, and regulatory authority to encourage energy-efficient appliances and new transmission lines.

But there are also major challenges in managing this sprawling, often unwieldy agency. Only about one-fifth of the Energy Department’s $35 billion annual budget is devoted to energy programs. The rest goes toward maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, cleaning up environmental messes from the Cold War and conducting scientific research in areas like high-energy physics.

“There will be a lot of competing demands on the energy secretary’s time,” said Dan Reicher, a former assistant energy secretary under President Bill Clinton who noted that previous secretaries have had to deal with crises around oil spills or radioactive leaks. “Even the best-laid plans can get disrupted.”

Here’s a look at what the Energy Department could do on climate policy.

Among energy experts, there is broad agreement that the world could use major technological advances to halt global warming, such as better batteries to handle larger shares of solar and wind power on the grid, or carbon capture techniques to trap carbon dioxide from heavily polluting cement plants before it reaches the atmosphere.

Historically, the Energy Department has nurtured these types of innovations, conducting basic research in its laboratories and aiding private firms struggling to bring risky technologies to market. The agency’s investments in shale-gas technology in the 1970s laid the groundwork for the fracking boom. The Obama administration’s SunShot Initiative helped drive down the price of utility-scale solar power more than 70 percent from 2010 to 2016.

Such energy innovation typically enjoys bipartisan support from lawmakers.

In December, Congress rejected former President Trump’s request to slash the agency’s energy spending, and instead authorized an additional $35 billion over the next decade to research and demonstrate new technologies around energy storage, advanced nuclear power and techniques to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

While much of this spending is directed by Congress, Ms. Granholm would have leeway to reshape and guide the agency’s efforts. The Obama administration, for example, steered the national labs to work on issues like electric-vehicle batteries and recycling. The Trump administration, by contrast, highlighted efforts to improve coal technology — a major producer of greenhouse gases.

“It makes a big difference if there’s a clear direction from the top to focus on combating climate change,” said Arjun Krishnaswami, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council who co-authored a report in 2018 on how the department could do more to prioritize global warming. (The report’s other author, Tarak Shah, is the agency’s new chief of staff.)

The Energy Department is currently sitting on the authority to backstop more than $40 billion in low-interest loans that could, in theory, help bring new renewable, nuclear, carbon capture and storage technologies to the market. These loan programs have been largely untouched for years.

Ms. Granholm could revive the programs relatively quickly, though that would carry some risks.

The Obama administration used loan guarantees to support a number of novel clean-energy projects and companies, including Tesla, which quickly repaid its debts and later became the world’s largest electric-car manufacturer. But these programs also attracted fierce criticism from Republicans after the agency guaranteed a $535 million loan to Solyndra, a California solar company that went bankrupt.

The Trump administration largely put the loan programs on hold, reflecting a conservative view that the federal government should mainly focus on early-stage research and leave the rest to the private sector.

Still, some experts have argued that the agency could do much more to help commercialize promising new technologies, and the loan program could be part of that.

“There’s a compelling argument that the government has a critical role to play in reducing the risk of bringing new technologies to market,” said Erin Burns, executive director of Carbon180, a nonprofit focused on carbon removal. “But it also means being willing to take a chance on things that may not work out.”

For the most part, the Energy Department can’t require companies to slash their emissions or adopt cleaner technologies — that’s largely the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency or Congress.

But there is one notable exception.

The Energy Department oversees energy efficiency standards for a wide array of appliances and equipment, such as light bulbs, refrigerators, water heaters and industrial motors. The Obama administration famously used these standards to help phase out traditional incandescent light bulbs in favor of models that consumed less electricity. The Trump administration, by contrast, loosened many of these standards, which sometimes face opposition from industry groups.

Mr. Biden has already ordered the Energy Department to revisit and consider tightening its efficiency rules. One recent report by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy estimated that, by doing so, the United States could avoid emitting some 2.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 — equivalent to retiring at least 13 large coal plants.

The Biden administration has set a goal of eliminating emissions from America’s power plants by 2035. Doing so, experts say, could prove difficult without building vast new high-voltage transmission lines to carry more power from remote wind and solar farms.

Yet new transmission lines are notoriously tough to build, often facing opposition from local landowners. The process for funding and permitting these projects can be convoluted, split among various states and regulators.

In theory, the Department of Energy could play a bigger role in streamlining that process. Under laws previously passed by Congress, for instance, the federal government has the authority to designate transmission corridors as in the national interest and even override state regulators in certain cases if the permitting process has stalled.

A recent report from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity looked at how the Energy Department and other regulators might use some of these tools to help expand the nation’s grid. The lead author, Avi Zevin, was recently hired by the Department of Energy as deputy general counsel for energy policy.

But there are dangers, too: If the federal government moves too aggressively, it could face blowback from states, lawmakers in Congress or the courts. For the most part, previous administrations have been wary of acting here.

“Yes, the authority is there, but it can be tricky,” said Alexandra Klass, a transmission expert at the University of Minnesota Law School. “You don’t want to make people too upset, or Congress could easily take that authority away.”

Ultimately, experts said, a far-reaching transformation of the nation’s energy system is likely to require new laws from Congress. While the Department of Energy can help develop new clean energy technologies, companies may have little incentive to use them unless governments adopt new policies requiring lower emissions.

The Energy Department also has a relatively limited budget. Currently, the agency spends about $8 billion per year on energy. During the campaign, Mr. Biden pledged to invest $40 billion per year in clean energy innovation over the next decade, in pursuit of goals such as developing energy storage that’s one-tenth the cost of today’s batteries or slashing emissions from heavy industry.

Any large increase in funding would require approval from Congress, either as part of a post-coronavirus stimulus bill or through regular spending bills. That means persuading sometimes skeptical lawmakers that the government can play an effective role in advancing new technologies.

“If you’re asking how much the Department of Energy can do, it really comes down to budgets,” said Mr. Reicher. “So the question is, how far is Congress willing to go?”

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