Full speed in reverse: Rick Perry presents his vision for DOE

Rick Perry may be perhaps the least qualified individual to hold the position of U.S. Energy Secretary to date. The previous two energy secretaries appointed by former President Barack Obama both came from substantial careers in science, and former Secretary Steven Chu was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Even their predecessor Samuel Bodman had a degree in chemical engineering.

By contrast, Perry’s degree is in animal science, and his previous role as the governor of Texas is the only substantial experience that prepares him for his role. This was obvious when he took the stage and began talking at Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Future of Energy Summit in New York City, and was further reinforced by many of the statements that he made during his presentation.

The list of energy mythologies that Perry uttered during a half-hour presentation are too long to feature here. They included the Trump Administration’s claim that former U.S. President Obama had waged a “war on coal”, when in fact the success of natural gas generation is mostly to blame for the decline of coal generation in the United States. There was also the claim that Germany’s coal use and emissions have risen due to their shift to renewables, a myth whose wide reproduction in the media in previous years was in sharp contrast to how clearly it is refuted by data.

But while Perry’s statements about causation of energy changes were a farce, his plans for the U.S. Department of Energy are nothing to laugh about. Perry claims that he will revive the use of coal, is already approving facilities to liquefy and export natural gas, and has said that he will put the federal government’s weight to bringing back domestic nuclear power.

What is interesting about Perry’s statements on coal and nuclear is that they were shamelessly contradicted by his simultaneous claim that the federal government will also be “agnostic to source” and let the market decide which technologies are winners and losers. “Instead of relying on the heavy hand of regulation, we will pursue an all-of-the-above strategy”, stated Perry.

In terms of nuclear power, Perry broke with an unstated orthodoxy in the U.S. power sector, and clearly admitted that the reason his office will back domestic nuclear power generation – despite its clear failure in the market – is to support the nuclear weapons industry.

“As we have not built nuclear plants over a 30-year time, the intellectual capability, the manufacturing capability, I will not say has been completely lost, but has been impacted in a major way,” stated Perry. “In doing so, the development of our weapons side, has been impacted.”

Perry’s interest in nuclear was in sharp contrast to statements by utility leaders at the summit. In contrast to previous years pv magazine heard no major industry figures expressing optimism for nuclear power in the wake of Westinghouse’s bankruptcy. Even Duke Energy Chair, President and CEO Lynn Good described new nuclear projects as “challenged”.

Perry was also sure to repeat the myth that baseload power is necessary for a reliable electricity system, and to state that he will use the power of the federal government to ensure that baseload plants are not driven off the grid. Perry admitted that this will include interfering with the policies of state and local governments, a political approach which his Republican Party claims to oppose but appears ready to use when they hold power in the federal government.

“Making sure that we implement baseload on the grid is a national priority,” stated Perry. When questioned directly about interfering with state and local governments, Perry replied that “The conversation does, in fact, need to happen”.

This will happen over the cold, dead bodies of the political leadership in California, New York and a number of other states, which have pledged to double down on their leadership in reducing carbon emissions and moving to a grid based on renewable energy, demand-side solutions and energy storage.

And despite these ominous statements, Perry has given no indication that he is an ideologue like Myron Ebell, and not everything he said regarding renewable energy was negative. Perry mentioned Texas’ success with wind when he was governor, and stated that “we are going to ensure that wind energy finds its way to the grid”. And threading between the painful contradictions in what Perry said, it appears possible that the new secretary is aiming for a diversified energy system.

The impact in the long run may be that instead of stopping the Energy Transition, Perry’s tenure as the head of the DOE will merely slow it down. And if there is a saving grace to all of this, it is that Perry, who once famously proposed getting rid of DOE and then forgot which agencies he wanted to eliminate, may or may not be able to achieve the goals of the Trump Administration.

“Being the secretary of energy is real different from being the governor of Texas,” admitted Perry.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.