Energy Secretary Nominee Is An Academic, Politico

President Obama will name Ernie Moniz as the next secretary of the Department of Energy. Moniz is a physicist and academic — but unlike his predecessor, he's a seasoned politico who knows Washington and Congress. Moniz will please and annoy both ends of the energy policy spectrum: He's a big solar and wind booster, but a fan of natural gas and nuclear power as well.

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An MIT physicist and Washington insider is the president's choice to run the Department of Energy. Ernest Moniz served as an undersecretary of energy for President Clinton. He now works at MIT, where his research institute publishes studies on energy that are considered required reading on Capitol Hill.

As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, Moniz is a booster of solar and wind power but also some types of fossil fuel.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Like the current DOE Secretary Steven Chu, Ernie Moniz is a physicist and an academic. But the similarity ends there. After coming to Washington, D.C., from California, Nobel Prize winner Chu told reporters: I feel like I've been thrown in the deep end of the pool. Moniz, however, has been swimming laps in that pool for years.

Since he left the Clinton administration, Moniz has testified often in Congress and at Washington think tanks. He's easy to spot in a dark suit, with 1960s-style shoulder-length gray hair.

Moniz says climate change dictates the future of energy and that means less carbon in our fuel, carbon that warms the atmosphere. He laid out his view recently before Washington's World Affairs Council.

ERNEST MONIZ: So the formula is, in fact, for these 10 years, demand management, gas for coal, and innovate like hell so that the zero carbon alternatives can have cost reductions and it can get driven into the marketplace earlier.

JOYCE: Demand management as in getting consumers to use energy more efficiently, replacing coal-fired power plants with more natural gas turbines, and finally making wind, solar and geothermal energy cheaper.

In the meantime, Moniz says let's burn natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing technology has made gas abundant. To fracking's critics, Moniz says, yes, fracking has environmental problems, but they can be handled with regulations. He says gas is necessary until solar and wind are more affordable.

MONIZ: Since I see the zero carbon alternatives all having 10-year or longer time frames, I will argue it's buying us time as long as it displaces coal. The caution is, buying time doesn't matter if you don't use the time.

JOYCE: Use it, for example, to make the nation's electricity grid more solar and wind-friendly. Moniz also says more nuclear power could help the climate if it's not too pricey.

MONIZ: What we are advocating is the need to establish nuclear and other essentially zero carbon options. We have to understand, what does it cost?

JOYCE: Moniz is well aware of the monkey on the back of nuclear power: 45,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste from power plants. He served on a commission last year that recommended building an underground repository to finally bury that waste.

Moniz will be the target for those who say limits on oil and coal will drive up consumers' energy bills. And some environmental groups say his MIT institute is too cozy with the oil and gas industry. The institute accepts sponsorship from several oil companies but also has leading environmentalists as advisers.

People who know Washington and the energy business say Moniz is savvy. Here's Dave McCurdy, head of the American Gas Association and a former congressman from Oklahoma.

DAVE MCCURDY: Ernie Moniz understands Washington. He knows that you have to work with both sides of the political aisle. You have to build consensus. But he brings relationships to the Hill.

JOYCE: But Moniz also knows the physics. Here's Frances Beinecke, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

FRANCES BEINECKE: We want to be innovative and solve a lot of the energy problems that we've had and move towards a cleaner energy future. And I think having the technological background is critical too.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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