Dan Simmons, the new head of the Department of Energy’s renewables and efficiency office, says he doesn’t have an opinion on the "Green New Deal." He’s not worried about investigations by incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). And "affordability" is his No. 1 priority.
Simmons sat down for his first interview with E&E News last week at DOE’s Grid Modernization Summit in Seattle after being sworn in on Jan. 16.
He served as acting head of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) from 2017 to mid-2018, and then worked in a different position in the department during a lengthy confirmation process. Previously he was the vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research (IER), a free-market group that has advocated against carbon cap-and-trade legislation and for offshore oil drilling. He held the same role for IER’s advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliance, which in 2015 argued for abolishing EERE by zeroing out its funding.
Advocates for energy efficiency have criticized President Trump’s EERE for dragging its feet on establishing new efficiency standards for a variety of appliances and suggesting it would roll back an Obama-era standard for energy-saving lightbulbs. There also have been criticisms of the pace and process of distributing renewable grants (Greenwire, Dec. 10). These issues might soon receive scrutiny from Pallone and other newly empowered House Democrats.
The following is edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your goals for EERE.
My goals are pretty simple. The first one is energy affordability. We have to continue to drive down the cost of the source of generation in my portfolio. There has obviously been a lot of success on driving down the cost of wind, driving down the cost of solar, and we want to continue that, as well as for other technologies.
We have concentrated solar power; we have offshore wind — that’s just two examples — geothermal, bioenergy obviously, and there are lots of opportunities for the future. So No. 1 is affordability, and especially wanting to see that affordability translate into lower rates for ratepayers.
No. 2 is energy integration. We have these wind generating assets, these solar generating assets, that are intermittent, that cause challenges for the grid. As we have higher penetrations, let’s make sure we can integrate those into the grid. That’s one-half of the integration. The second half of the integration is the other side, if we want to call them edge resources, or the consumption side.
The grid edge.
The grid edge stuff. And that is integrating buildings and the grid with better communication technologies, as well as EVs [electric vehicles], making sure we’re thinking about the whole grid to add flexibility. I believe flexibility is incredibly important for the future.
No. 3 is energy storage — thinking about energy storage holistically. Obviously integration and storage go together, but with energy storage, obviously we want to keep on making progress on batteries. The Vehicle Technologies Office [a branch of EERE] tells me the model cost of battery packs for vehicles have fallen 60 percent in the last six, seven years. Don’t know if we’ll be able to continue that amount of decrease in the future, but there will continue to be decreases. Obviously not just lithium-ion, but other battery chemistries, as well. Those are the three main areas.
None of those goals would have been out of place under an Obama administration head of EERE. What is different about your approach versus the prior administration’s approach?
I can’t really speak to the Obama administration’s approach. I’m just focused on this. These are the technologies that I think are most important. Plus, they could have very easily worked in the Obama administration. These are nonpartisan points. I was grateful I made it through the confirmation process, and one of the reasons for that, I believe, is because my leadership of EERE has not been particularly partisan.
For concentrated solar and wind, are we likely to see an increase in funding for research or commercialization?
Many of those funding issues are really dictated by appropriations of Congress. We try to do our best to follow report language that Congress has given us, which has some ebbs and flows. I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out.
When you were the vice president of policy for the American Energy Alliance, you called for the elimination of EERE through budget cuts. Do you think EERE’s budget should be cut?
I reject your premise of your question, because you said I did that. That wasn’t me.
You were an important person in that organization at the time.
I didn’t do that … that wasn’t my doing.
Should EERE’s budget be cut?
You know, the answer there is the same as always, right: I support the president’s budget, and the president’s budget is the result of many factors pushing and pulling among the administration so we achieve a budget that makes sense, and at the end of the day, Congress is going to have its say. And we’ve seen what has happened over the last few years, where the request has been lower and the Congress has given us a lot more money, and the important thing for me is to make sure that we work hard to execute on the budget that Congress gives us.
Will you be advocating for maintaining or increasing the budget as the president and DOE make their budget recommendations?
I mean, I’m a political appointee. My job is to follow the president; otherwise, I’m not going to have this job. I’m not sure what that question’s asking, exactly.
Heads of departments have the ability to ask for more money.
I mean, we are well into the FY 20 [fiscal year 2020] budget planning, and I’ve been gone for the last seven months, so I haven’t had anything to do with the budget. I gave people ideas when I was previously in the role, but … I don’t know what the secretary has … I know there’s been pushback from a number of things from the department with OMB [the Office of Management and Budget]. I was not involved in any of those discussions.
Are there any changes coming to efficiency standards?
We have the process rule, to streamline the process, to modernize the process, to take into account some overall changes that have occurred over time — and hope to get that out before too long.
Are there efficiency standards coming for any particular appliances or devices?
I don’t know of any, off the top of my head. [Laughs] I’ve only been back for a week. What is important, and it’s one of the few conversations I’ve had about appliance standards with staff, is that we need to make sure that our pipeline of work is full, and that we’re moving along test procedures and we’re moving along the appliance standards. There’s a lot of work for us to do, so we need to be working diligently.
Are you concerned that Rep. Pallone, the new head of the House Energy [and Commerce] Committee, will push you to release efficiency standards on deadline?
I’m not concerned. I’m not sure what that would look like, so I can’t necessarily speculate. I think there’s going to be a lot of progress to be made in the short term.
Do you intend to rescind the rule on lightbulbs?
We have worked on it; we’ve worked on a rule. It’s not out yet, so I can’t comment that much.
Tell us what you think of the "Green New Deal" [the plan spearheaded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)].
I don’t know enough about the "Green New Deal" to have an opinion.
The top-line goal is 100 percent renewable energy, within a hasty time frame by the standards of the energy system. What do you think of that goal?
You know, it’s a challenge. At the Department of Energy, my portfolio is focused on driving down the cost, enabling, having more renewables on the system. I don’t have necessarily projections on when the system might be 100 percent renewable. That’s what we’re focused on, not necessarily a numeric target. Let’s work on these technologies, and then people will figure out adoption for themselves, what makes sense for their state or their company.
In your goals for EERE, you mentioned a lot of "RE" — renewable energy — but not a lot of the other "E," which is efficiency. Why wasn’t that part of your original goals? What you think about efficiency?
The administration supports efficiency to encourage overall growth in the economy, to make people’s lives better. And that feeds directly into the first of my goals, which is affordability. It isn’t just the affordability of energy; it’s also really the affordability of the things that use energy. It’s the affordability of energy savings in appliances. So efficiency is very much part of my No. 1 goal.
Reporters Christa Marshall and Hannah Northey contributed.