Arun Majumdar, a materials scientist and engineer who led a new research agency within the Energy Department under the Obama administration, is under consideration as deputy secretary, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no decision had been finalized. Majumdar, who has been working for the Biden transition team and was considered a candidate himself for the top Energy post, is an enthusiastic advocate for modernizing the nation’s electricity grid.
Granholm and Majumdar are both immigrants — she from Canada, he from India. Both come to the department from California with backgrounds and expertise in promoting and developing alternate technologies, even as the bulk of Energy’s mandate has to do with the maintenance and safeguarding of the nation’s nuclear weapons and handling the cleanup efforts at contaminated nuclear sites.
In budgetary terms, the nuclear program consumes about 75 percent of the department’s budget, or $27 billion.
“The Energy Department is actually the Nuclear Weapons Department,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
But its role in promoting research began getting more attention in the Obama administration and is likely to feature prominently under Biden, given his promises to tackle climate change.
“I think it will be top of mind in the Biden administration,” said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy with the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center in Oakland, Calif.
Granholm “is a proven leader on jobs, renewables, and a clean energy future who will bring empathy and experience to the Department of Energy,” Christine Pelosi, a Democratic Party strategist in California, and the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, tweeted Tuesday. “And she’s a trailblazing former governor who constantly lifts up other women.”
Granholm was governor of Michigan when the Obama administration bailed out the auto companies during the Great Recession, and she became a vocal advocate for the development of electric vehicle technology to preserve her state’s industrial base. For the past decade, she has been arguing that the United States could be left behind if it sits by while other countries continue to develop alternate energy technologies.
Global customers have already created a demand for cleaner products, she has said.
“The question is, where are they going to get them from?” she said on CNN in 2017. “Are they going to get everything from China, everything from Europe? Or are we going to get in this game and create jobs for our people?
“So to me, this is an economic issue. And I think that in red states, in purple states and in blue states, this is a jobs message, good-paying advanced jobs.”
Granholm sits on the board of Proterra, a California company that manufactures heavy-duty electric buses. Born in British Columbia, she moved to California with her family when she was 4 years old and is currently a professor of law and public policy at Berkeley’s School of Law.
She would not be the first energy secretary without a background in nuclear issues, but will have to rely on the expertise of deputies.
Hausfather, though, argued that the distinction between the two main missions is a “false dichotomy.” An energy secretary should be able to handle both responsibilities, given the right deputies, and civilian nuclear power generation has a role to play in any “decarbonization” policy, he said.
Granholm worked with Biden in Michigan a decade ago when he was overseeing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and he credits her with helping to save the auto industry and the union jobs it supports, said a person familiar with the transition team’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be more candid.
She also understands the threat of climate change and its impact on communities of color, the person said.
Sarah Ladislaw, director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an email that the next DOE secretary “needs to be a champion for all clean energy technologies — renewables, batteries, nuclear, hydrogen, and carbon capture and sequestration.”
“The name of the game is to figure out how to rapidly develop and deploy these technologies so the United States can continue to lead in the global clean energy technology race, create new economic opportunity, and address climate change,” Ladislaw said. “DOE will need to not only do what it’s good at — research and development — but it will need to become much better [at] pushing technologies into the market more quickly.”
Both moderates and liberals working on energy issues were pleased with Biden’s pick.
“Granholm brings the economic focus of an industrial state governor, which is exactly the economy-first frame Biden needs to sell his infrastructure and clean energy transition packages,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate aide to President Bill Clinton now with the Progressive Policy Institute.
Jamie Henn, a co-founder of the green group 350.org and director of Fossil Free Media, said it will be good to have a former Michigan governor be a face of the transition to cleaner cars.
“The governor has spoken really clearly about moving away from fossil fuels,” Henn said. “These roles are public messengers as much as policymakers.”
Scott Segal, a partner at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell who represents energy companies, said the former governor “is well positioned to run DOE.” Like other governors who run the department, Granholm may be able to bring a “bully pulpit to the job,” Segal said.
The Energy Department is “an essential agency for reaching climate goals,” said Samantha Gross, an energy expert at the Brookings Institution. Especially important, she said, is the research section set up under Obama by Majumdar, called ARPA-E, or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
“President-elect Biden’s mid-century decarbonization goal is ambitious, but the kind of ambition the world needs,” Gross said. “We will need technologies like carbon capture and storage, for instance, to deal with emissions that are very difficult to eliminate any other way. Practicality is much more important to me than ideological purity.”
“And I’d be delighted to see the U.S. back in the game with respect to cooperation on decarbonization abroad,” she added.
Hausfather noted that wind and solar technologies have matured and have become financially competitive. The Energy Department, he said, should be pushing research and development of advanced nuclear technology; geothermal technology, which builds off advances made by natural gas producers; carbon capture and storage; and industrial heat capacity potentially based on hydrogen as a fuel. Further into the future would be the development of competitive fusion energy.
Majumdar, who came to the United States when he was 22 to work on an advanced degree in engineering, is a materials scientist and engineer who was an acting undersecretary of energy under Steven Chu at the beginning of the Obama administration. He had followed Chu from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where the older scientist had changed much of the lab’s focus to climate research.
In Washington, Majumdar set up ARPA-E and was its first director.
He was later the vice president for energy at Google.
Now a professor at Stanford University, he is passionate about improving the electric grid, as became clear in a podcast he participated in last spring at Columbia University.
“Markets are necessary, but there are some areas of energy where markets don’t work,” he said. Among them are fuel-efficiency rules for cars, he said, and setting such rules for new buildings would be a good next step.
The government can create a “demand pull” to steer new technologies, he said, to make money available that innovative companies wouldn’t otherwise be able to raise.
Research that the department should back, he said, includes work on grid-scale storage of electricity, to even out the flow from renewable sources; on improved and more flexible grid management; on decarbonizing industrial heat; and on making low-carbon or carbon-free hydrogen fuel cost effective.
He pointed out that the architecture of the electric grid hasn’t changed since the turn of the 20th century, when generation was constant. But with renewables it has become volatile — as the sun shines or the winds blow — and “we need flexibility in the grid to manage that.”
Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist who served under Obama as energy secretary and who turns 76 this month, had been suggested as a possible pick. He would have returned to the post with a strong background in nuclear policy, after playing a significant role in working out the Iran nuclear deal.
But environmental activists opposed his nomination because he has done some work for BP and has sat on the board of the Southern Company, a utility. Hausfather, who said he preferred someone younger, said he thought it was a mistake to demonize utility companies.
“They’re not going away,” he said. “They need to be our partners, not our enemies.”
Moniz, who now runs the Nuclear Threat Initiative, was reported to be more interested in staying where he is. Even with the incoming administration’s focus on climate, he spoke at length about the importance of nuclear diplomacy during a discussion sponsored by Columbia University on Nov. 17.
“We think the risks right now are higher than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis,” he said. “We are sleepwalking toward nuclear instability.”
He said it was counterproductive for the Obama administration in 2014 to cut off a communications channel with Russia that facilitated dialogue on nuclear issues, in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and involvement in the separatist war in eastern Ukraine.
“We are somehow treating communication as a reward rather than a diplomatic tool,” he said. “We need to change this around in a pretty dramatic way.”
He said that the United States should recommit to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and suggested that Washington voluntarily lower its ceiling on nuclear weapons, from 1,550 to 1,400, as a “trust-building” gesture toward Moscow. He also spoke in favor of reviving the deal with Iran that President Trump pulled out of.
Other possible candidates whose names surfaced following the election were Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, 61, a professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech, who was deputy secretary of energy in the Obama administration, as well as deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton; Dan Reicher, 64, a Stanford professor who was assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration; and Jay Inslee, who briefly was in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, focusing on climate change, and has just won reelection to his third term as Washington’s governor.
Granholm will be stepping into a tough post. She “will need to not only have a strong vision for what it takes to transform the U.S. energy system but will need to work with Congress, the labs, the private sector, state government officials, other agencies, and countries around the world to make it happen,” said Ladislaw. “It’s a big job.”
But analysts cautioned that much of the transformative work Biden might hope to accomplish will require legislation, and Congress could be an obstacle.
“You can only get so much done by executive action,” Hausfather said. Nuclear power and carbon-capture projects are more likely to get bipartisan support than renewables, he said.
“But there’ll be opposition in Congress even if Jesus Christ were nominated,” said Kimball.
An earlier version of this article misstated former positions held by Arun Majumdar and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall. It has been updated.