The Future of Energy: An Interview with Former U.S. Energy Secretary

Dr. Ernest Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, discusses future global energy policy.

Dr. Ernest Moniz served as the U.S. Secretary of Energy from May 2013 to January 2017 and as Undersecretary of Energy from 1997 to January 2001. He is a professor emeritus of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and researches future energy sources and energy policy. This interview about future energy policy was conducted on April 8, 2022, and has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Just how acute is the energy problem right now? Has it worsened over the years?

The principal energy challenge is the low-carbon transition that we need to address climate risks. Certainly, our awareness of [the energy issue] has gotten more acute. We have [no] time left to successfully navigate the transition in ways that keep, [for example], global warming in the relatively safe range. Right now, we are certainly headed towards maybe a 2.5ºC temperature rise, when 1.5ºC or 2ºC is [more] desirable. We need to deploy a lot of low-carbon technology in this decade to provide solutions for our [future]. Secondly, while climate change is the most urgent, there’s also a real urgency that has been made clear by the appalling situation in Ukraine. [The situation demonstrates that] energy security [has] been ignored over the years. In 2014, when I was Energy Secretary and Russia started the Ukraine issue with the Crimean Annexation, we did revisit energy security. ‘We’ was the G7 plus the European Union led by President Obama. We, energy ministers, were directed to publish a modern view of energy security – we did. It included the fact that decarbonization was completely aligned with energy security. 

Are we running out of fossil fuels?

No, we’re not running out of fossil fuels. In the 1970s, the Saudi [Arabian] oil minister said, “The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stones, and the oil age will not end for lack of oil.” So it’s really not that the resource will run out; [rather] we have to significantly diminish the use of fossil fuels unless we capture the carbon dioxide that is released upon combustion. We just cannot keep emitting 35-40 billion tons a year of greenhouse gasses, while maintaining climate [change] at a reasonable place.

Is nuclear energy something that has to be in the mix for a net zero-emission future?

Nuclear power, especially the modern technologies, needs to be an option that different countries and different regions may choose to [either] use or not. It’s worth distinguishing three elements:

Number 1: We have a large amount of existing nuclear power. In the United States, we have nearly 100 nuclear power reactors in operation. They account for 20% of our electricity and are the largest non-greenhouse-gas-emitting electricity sources we have. If we do not sustain those plants for another few decades, we will have an extremely difficult time [to account for] that carbon-free power source. 

Number 2: The new nuclear technologies that have been developed but not yet deployed are very attractive [options for future energy sources]. They generally have much smaller size[s] than today’s nuclear power plants and have very good passive safety features. So getting those [technologies] demonstrated is another very important task so that those countries or regions that want to use nuclear power will have [the] technology, particularly for deployment, in the 2030s and 2040s. 

[Number 3:] In the nuclear energy realm, there is both fission, [which is the] splitting of uranium like in today’s reactors, and fusion, [which is the] bringing together [of] very light elements like isotopes of hydrogen to create huge amounts of energy. Fusion is the holy grail [for the future of energy] because it has all of the good features of fission reactors but without [the] safety concerns or the nuclear waste produced by a fission reactor. The problem is fusion is very challenging technically [compared to fission].

How can scientists and public figures shift public opinion regarding nuclear power plants?

Again, I want to emphasize that fusion does not have [the same safety] challenges [as fission]. Frankly, the safety record of nuclear fission reactors is quite good. Chernobyl was a [plant] of very old design that never would have been licensed in the West. But the modern designs have been very safe. Fukushima is not a case where the reactor failed. Rather, a tsunami took out the backup systems. Bad things can happen, but with good management, these systems have proved safe. In a fission reactor, even if you manage the safety issues, you can never escape the high level [of] nuclear waste. There is no solution to that.

What do you see as the most important energy challenge for the US in the next decade?

The most important challenge is decarbonization, which will require the electricity sector to deploy massive amounts of wind and solar [resources]. It will require more energy storage, especially long-duration energy storage because wind and solar are not steady sources. It will require energy efficiency in multiple sectors: transportation, buildings, and industry. Decarbonizing the industry is very hard. Decarbonizing transportation is also a major challenge. We all know about electric vehicles, but the reality is that parts of the transportation sector, [like] long-distance air travel, are not easily done on batteries. We have to find alternative fuels [such as] hydrogen or some other advanced liquid fuel or advanced biofuels. But right now we do not have a credible, reasonable cost solution [that is] clean and [able] to support all of the transportation system.