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Former U.S. Secretary of Energy talks low-carbon economy with Utah energy sector

SALT LAKE CITY — As the Governor's Energy Summit kicked off in Salt Lake City on Monday, a former U.S. Secretary of Energy discussed how the energy sector can move toward the goal of a low-carbon economy.

"The facts all around are this is where we are going because our city, state and business leaders are pursuing that direction," keynote speaker Ernest J. Moniz said to a crowd of people who work in the energy sector.

Moniz served as U.S. Secretary of Energy between 2013 and 2017. He is now CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Speaking at the Grand America hotel, Moniz said that although the U.S. left the Paris Climate Agreement last year, the U.S. and other nations are still aiming for a low-carbon economy.

Mayors, governors and business leaders have declared "we are staying on the same pathway," the former Secretary of Energy said.

"When they are saying that … you've got to believe that's where we are going, because they're playing the role of, you know, Wayne Gretzky. Don't go where the puck is, go where the puck's going to be," he explained.

Moniz believes states, cities and businesses working together is "central to getting where we want to go."

A low-carbon future

Moniz discussed three areas of focus for the government and energy industry to move toward an economy with a low-carbon footprint.

First, the energy sector needs to address the economy's demand for energy efficiency and conservation, Moniz explained. If demand isn't there, it will be difficult for the U.S. to reach a low-carbon economy, he said.

Next, the electricity sector is the "lead horse" in moving toward a low-carbon economy, he said. Renewable energy — including solar, wind and geo-thermal in Utah and in parts of the West — will be important but "not enough."

"The system will have to include significant amounts of natural gas in many places, not all," as well as nuclear energy and carbon capture, Moniz said.

"When I was secretary, I was sometimes derided, but I think generally vindicated, in arguing for an all-of-the-above strategy, in which all of our energy sources have to be developed as options for a low-carbon economy," he said.

He also explained other energy sectors will need to be "electrified." And the transportation sector and industrial sector will be more difficult to "electrify," Moniz said.

"We are going to have to have a much broader set of solutions building on the low-carbon electricity sector if we are really going to have a low-carbon economy," he said.

Addressing challenges

Even if those energy sectors find success, the U.S. will still be in war, he explained. "War, in my view, is very large-scale carbon management," Moniz said.

He then discussed ways carbon can be managed through several different forms of carbon capture, including power plants, underground sequestration, industrial facilities and air capture.

Innovation will be key to addressing the many challenges and reaching a low-carbon economy, he said.

"But I do want to emphasize that in saying 'innovation,' I do mean technology innovation, but I also mean business-model innovation and policy innovation, and would emphasize that, for success, we need all three of those aligned."

He said that the U.S. hasn't yet recognized "the incredible diversity of conditions, resources, public attitudes, aspirations in different regions of the country."

Low-carbon solutions in different parts of the country won't be uniform, Moniz explained. Therefore, an "all of the above" approach at the federal level will help states and communities develop options that will be best suited for them, he said.

State and regional policies, as well as "innovation ecosystems," are important for the nation to succeed in low-carbon energy, he said.

In one example of states working together, Utah is collaborating with other states on the Western Initiative for Nuclear led by NuScale Power, Moniz said.

Through that initiative, NuScale Power is studying a series of small modular reactor power plants, according to NuScale Power's website.

In 2024, a NuScale Small Modular Reactor built through the program is expected to be operational, after which similar projects may begin in Utah and other states, the website states.

"We're going to strive and work together. That is the culture of Utah. We've done it for over 120 years," said Laura Nelson, Gov. Gary Herbert's energy adviser.