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Transcript: The Path Forward: Renewable Energy with White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy

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MS. STEAD SELLERS: Good morning, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer here at the Post.

My guest this morning is the first White House National Climate Advisor, Gina McCarthy. A very warm welcome to the Washington Post Live, Gina.

MS. McCARTHY: It's nice to be with you, Frances. Thanks for inviting me.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Well, we're thrilled to have you, and I'd like to start with a sort of overview question. Tell me what the biggest challenges are facing America in the energy realm right now.

MS. McCARTHY: Well, I think one of the biggest challenges that we're facing is the challenge of climate change. I think we see as the science continues to evolve that we need to move fast. We need to be as bold as we can in moving forward with a clean energy future, and that future needs to be today and tomorrow, frankly.

We're looking at, in this administration, how we can take a whole-of-government approach, not just look at what we used to talk about at EPA or what we used to talk about in the nonprofit world, but really, it's about public and private sector working together to really accelerate our transition to clean energy. That's what's necessary. I think that's what we're planning to do. That's what President Biden's American Jobs Plan is all about, and I think as we move our way out of the pandemic, it's tough to talk to people about issues like climate change, and so I think President Biden's real role is in what he's embraced, is talking to people about things that matter to people.

And climate change can be a kitchen-table issue if you just talk about it from the standpoint of what kind of jobs are we going to create. How do we make sure that we're investing in every community? How do we make sure we're not leaving workers behind? What kind of future do you want for your children? What kind of food do we want to have? What kind of homes can we build that are going to be efficient, and how do we keep our community safe with the resilience and adaptation efforts? That's the discussion that we are having in this administration across a whole of government, not just at EPA, but every agency is beginning to think about how we invest in a way that is actually going to move to that clean energy future, grow jobs, deliver on environmental justice, and I think, hopefully, give people who have been locked in their homes for a long time an opportunity to have faith and hope that we're moving out of this pandemic to a better future and that will provide--that future will provide opportunities for everyone.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: When you mention kitchen-table issues--and of course, one of those is having a reliable power supply, and I thinking back to February in Texas and the profound outage there and its repercussions across the country. What has to be done now to make sure that the electrical grid is safe and secure for people who rely so intimately on their supplies?

MS. McCARTHY: Well, I think, Frances, you know that President Biden is interested in making an investment in our infrastructure, and that is stated broadly. One of the infrastructure investments that need to be made is in our grid system, our transmission system. There's a couple of reasons why we need to do that, and we need to do it now. One is what happened in Texas.

What we now realize is that sort of just like climate change, which isn't about one state or one community, it's about how we have a resilient system across the United States, and so the president's interest is in investing in our grid system so that we actually fill these gaps and allow redundancies to happen so that energy can flow where it's needed unabated.

And that's what Texas needed. It couldn't handle the challenge it was facing as just a one system, one state. It needed to be connected, and so President Biden is looking through his American Jobs Plan to actually invest in a grid system that's much more resilient and one that sort of works on the seams first to look at how we make that integration happen. And the benefit of that also, Frances, is that it opens up opportunities for more renewable energy to be competitive.

We know where renewable energy has access to the grid, that it wins every time because of its cost, its lower cost than fossil fuels, but we also know that there are many parts of our country where the grid isn't able to actually provide access to renewable energy and battery storage and other technologies that are coming to fore that are going to be necessary for us to actually address climate in a systemic, across the United States way.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: We all watched the president on Tuesday in Michigan driving around and apparently having a high time in a little electric vehicle, but can you tell me where electric vehicles--what role they play in meeting the climate goals you're setting out? How central are they?

MS. McCARTHY: Yeah. Well, Frances, there's two big areas where if we want to make progress quickly, we have to move. One is--we just talked about it--the utility sector, the energy sector as a whole, which President Biden wants to deliver a clean power sector by 2035, so there's a lot of focus there.

The second is transportation. There is no question that we have to move to electric vehicles. The great thing is that that's not just coming from me, which what do I know? It's coming from the automakers themselves.

When I came here, we sat down with some of the automakers individually because, as you know, the prior administration unraveled the system, the national system we had to regulate this sector effectively, and we wanted to sit down and say, "What do you have to say?" Well, GM, Ford, now Volvo, now Volkswagen, now Hyundai, I mean, they are all saying electric vehicles are the future.

What you saw the president doing yesterday was basically making--was having fun. I probably should admit that up front because clearly, he was, but he was having fun because electric vehicles actually are incredibly high performing, and if you look at the F-150, it's basically vehicles that are iconic in the United States. They're one--if not the largest, the second largest. I think they're actually the most sold vehicle in the United States. It's really kind of cool to take a look at a truck and transform it into an electric vehicle and one that people know and recognize and have seen everywhere, to show that it's not just vehicle that serve an urban constituency, and it's not just passenger vehicles, but this is a truck that will serve our rural communities that is going to actually perform terrific. It's one of the top rated for both payload and towing.

This basically was an opportunity for him not just to go to the Ford electric vehicle center and drive this car but to show that these vehicles are real. They perform terrific. They do the tasks that you want, and they are built in the United States by union workers with parts that were made in the United States of America.

That visit was really multifaceted because one of the things we want to make clear is that the president's jobs plan, including what he's trying to do to move to cleaner transportation, is to make sure that it comes with good-paying union jobs, to make sure that the parts are made in America, that we are beginning to grab the supply chain particularly from China, which is really producing these vehicles at three times the level that we have been, and we have to get moving if we expect the United States to continue to win the future.

And so, his whole effort was both to enjoy the moment but I think more importantly to send a big message to the American people that we can actually move to a clean energy future. And we can grow good union jobs doing it so we grow from the bottom and the middle out in this country again, and we can do it in a way that will continue to provide the types of vehicles that we want for performance but also make sure that the American Jobs Plan is invested in, because it's going to make sure that they're accessible and affordable to consumers, because we want Ford to manufacture them, but we need people to buy them.

And so, part of the American Jobs Plan is to actually invest in consumer rebates and tax incentives so that these vehicles become affordable, which if you look at the economic projections, they will be shortly within the next few years, and we want to make sure that we're providing the kind of tax incentives and other investment strategies to manufacture batteries in the U.S., which we finally are doing at a couple of facilities moving forward.

And we're also looking at making sure that the parts to these vehicles continue to get the incentives, those manufacturers, so that we can grab that supply chain and keep it here.

And the last thing that the president is proposing in this sector for electric vehicles is to make sure that we're investing in 500,000 charging stations because we need basically everybody to know that if you want to buy an electric vehicle, you are going to get not just supported financially, but you're going to be assured that you can get where you need to go and you can get home again.

And so, I'm excited about the opportunities of the plan and the fact that the president did such a good job showing that electric vehicles should be in high demand, and we will get them there.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: He was clearly having fun when he was out there, as you said.

You've used the term "renewables." How central are solar and wind to that? Actually, as another point, does nuclear have a future in this country in your view?

MS. McCARTHY: Yeah. Solar and wind are extraordinarily important already, and they will be as we move forward because part of what we're trying to do is to make sure that the tax incentives continue because wind and solar, where they can access the grid, they are basically winning. They are outcompeting fossil fuels because the costs are low, and the great thing about it also is that they provide an opportunity for clean energy. You're talking about a very attractive opportunity that's going to lower our air pollution and provide tremendous, immediate health benefits, particularly in urban areas where you have kids living on the outskirts of these roadways where you have these internal combustion engines spewing out air pollution. We are looking at real opportunities to both join in terms of looking at investing in solar and wind with the investments and transportation as being really great family, basically healthy family opportunities, and that's important.

In terms of nuclear, there are two ways in which nuclear continues to be an important consideration. Number one is that we do have nuclear facilities that provide significant baseload capacity, and so some of those nuclear facilities are older. We don't expect them to be carrying the load forever, but we do know that there are many regions in which at least the states themselves feel like the support for those facilities needs to continue while we build an infrastructure of wind and hydro and other mixes moving forward--and solar, of course.

But the second is that there's a lot of emphasis in investment now in innovation about smaller and more adaptive, if you will, new generation of nuclear. That's going to be pretty interesting, and people are really investing significant resources to look at these small nuclear reactors, these modular reactors, and whether they come to fruition, I don't know. But folks are certainly thinking they offer some promise. They don't generate the types of waste that traditional nuclear plants generate, and they do offer opportunities for much more smaller applications, with less need for large centralized facilities. I do think there's opportunities there as well.

President Biden's plan is really not to pick winners and losers. It's to work with our regulators, to work with the policymakers across the agencies, and to work with the private sector to make sure that anything that has promise remains on the table for opportunity. And then we'll see where the private sector and the public sector and up aligning in terms of our interests and our investment opportunities.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Gina, you paint a very promising picture of a cleaner future, but the International Energy Agency came out with a report recently that raises questions about how realistic some of these goals are like getting to net zero by 2050. I think they said the goals were achievable, but the possibility of getting there was narrow. Is that right?

MS. McCARTHY: I think that we have to move quickly. There is no question about it. It's getting to the point where we have, I think, tremendous opportunity to deploy the technologies of today. We know how to make great progress.

The American Jobs Plan is really about building on what we already know to be true and available and deploying that at scale, but it's also about continuing to invest in innovation. There is no way that I can tell you that there is an absolutely defined strategy to get to net zero by 2050. I know that's the goal, and as science moves forward, hopefully, immediate deployment of the technologies available to us today will buy us time but also significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions so that we can make that net zero a possibility in 2050, which I'm very confident we can get there. But I can't exactly define the pathway, nor should we expect to, because I know there are new technologies being developed today that may trump what we already have available to us now, and so you'll make the shift. Things will develop.

But I think what I want to point out to you, Frances, is that when we took a look at defining our Paris commitment as we rejoined the first day of the Biden administration, we took a look at all of the sectors that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and we did some analytics on what we already know is available to us. And we are very confident that by 2030, we can achieve 50 to 52 percent reduction from 2005 in terms of our greenhouse gas emissions. That's on the basis of what I already know to be true.

I am very confident that we have the ability to make significant progress, and that will get us on a trajectory to meet President Biden's goal of clean energy in 2035, and it will get us on a trajectory to actually get to zero by 2050.

I do not want to sell our ability to move these technologies forward in a broad and quick way, nor will I ever tell you that innovation won't happen when we know it will because it always does. I have always believed as a government employee for a very long time that when government sends clear signals--like the president through the American Jobs Plan is telling the American people and the private sector, what we need to do to ensure that people in this country have good jobs, people in this country can actually live safe and resilient lives in our communities, and that we'll have a good future to hand off to our children. That's what this plan is about, and I believe that we can deliver it, not just in 2030, but we can deliver on that promise in 2050.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: The president's proposals are, almost without exception, enormously expensive. Renewables are notoriously expensive on the front end, even if they save money later on. Republicans have been fighting to keep some of these climate measures out of spending bills. What are your strategies going ahead to get backing for these proposals?

MS. McCARTHY: Well, let me challenge you a little bit. If you're looking at comparative costs, look at the cost of doing nothing versus the cost of actually investing in America again.

Part of, I think, President Biden's message is that we just haven't been investing in the United States consistent with how other presidents have invested in the historic way in which we have grown our country, and so I do not think that the investments that the president is making is extraordinary if you look at the history that we have of this country in terms of investing in ourselves and turning that investment into real savings for individuals, real job growth for individuals, real progress in our country so that we can win and capture the future.

And so, I don't think that renewable energy is actually expensive. I think renewable energy delivers for the American public, and I think every single thing in that jobs plan is not an expenditure. It is, indeed, an investment, not just in our future, but it's investments in good jobs today.

I think depending upon how you look at it, you need to really focus very heavily on the costs associated with doing nothing, which represents an existential climate threat to us.

I think we have communities that are vulnerable now and need investing in because they've been disinvested in the future, and they deserve to have their fair share of investment.

I think if you look at our energy system, the addition of renewable energy into that system has actually made us safer, made us healthier, and made the energy costs go down for individuals.

I would challenge you a little bit, Mary--a little bit, Frances--I almost called you "Mary Frances" because I know a lot of Mary Franceses. But, Frances, I know that people see this as a lot of money, but in a historic perspective, it is exactly the kind of investments that people have made before that brought this country to be as strong and as economically viable as we are today. We just have to start investing in ourselves again. It's a disgrace not to. There are too many people that haven't benefited over the past 20 years in a way that they should have expected and we should be demanding.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Gina, let me ask another question about renewables. They're also notoriously difficult to store. Energy usage is often highest in the evenings when solar is lower, wind power drops. Where are we with creating batteries? How are we going to overcome that significant challenge in using renewables?

MS. McCARTHY: Yeah, it is a significant challenge, and I think we've recognized it as such for a while. We're making great strides in battery storage, but that has to go hand in hand with resilience in the grid system because we know that batteries are used to basically level off demand in a way that's going to be essential.

Progress has been made. I feel like there's obviously continued investment, but the private sector is now all over these issues. I know that we're going to continue to spend resources to continue to develop battery storage technology and others, but I feel like the progress we have made has sent a clear signal to the private sector that there's more progress to be had.

Over time, we'll make the investments we need, but I feel pretty confident that with the systems that are in place, there's a lot of flexibility that can be used. There's backup generation that can be developed with more resilience in our battery system technology, and there's opportunities to look at reducing energy demand in buildings and actually storing energy in buildings. It's just getting enormously clever about the ways in which the private sector is thinking about energy as not transitory but as something that you can manipulate to deal with the demand differences during the day and seasonally.

I feel pretty confident that we're moving forward in that area. We're not where we need to get, but we're certainly sufficient if we invest in our grid system to be able to continue to make progress moving forward.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So much of what President Biden is proposing or has done represents a reversal from the previous administration. That, of course, has implications for private companies. What are you doing to reassure private investors that there won't be another reversal four or eight years from now that could undo a lot of what you're talking about with very long-term goals?

MS. McCARTHY: Well, you know, Frances, that's a question that I was asked when we reentered Paris: Is this a short-lived transition for the United States? And I think it's an expected question, and I think there's an answer to it, and that is that one of the reasons to actually look at--instead of just using policies or regulations, which we're certainly going to continue to use as the tools of the trade and our obligation for things like cars and vehicles and utilities, we're going to continue to regulate for traditional pollutants and look for greenhouse gas reduction opportunities, which the laws require and we happily want to deliver those health benefits for people.

But the president's idea is that if we get out of this pandemic in a way that really invests in people by giving them good-paying union jobs, by actually working with the private sector to build new roads and bridges, transit systems that actually function for people, making sure that we're delivering broadband to connect the dots where high-speed broadband isn't readily available, if we're looking at rebuilding our water system and our wastewater system in a way that's going to get those lead pipes out and give our kids a chance to be the kind of person they were born to be, which lead exposure takes away from them, if we do this right, we are actually going to show the American people that they are far better off and our communities are far better off.

And you're not going to reverse that investment trend. People are not going to say, "Let's just shut off everything we just built and somehow pretend that our roads aren't better anymore, our bridges aren't safer and more secure and built more stable, and our transit systems, let's just stop those buses that are clean or those school buses that are going to be clean or the homes that we've retrofit. Those are things you don't reverse.

And so, I think that the genuine, really fun, and creative approach that President Biden has taken is to recognize that the United States needs to invest in itself again, and if we do this right, these are not reversable ideas. These are ideas that will continue to push the United States forward. These are ideas that will show the American public that we can deliver in government a better future for them, and they're going to keep demanding it.

Once electric vehicles get out in heavy quantities and you have an infrastructure that's in place to serve those vehicles and make people feel sure that they can buy them and they'll perform better, it's not going to go back. Progress doesn't reverse like that, and so this is not about giving the next president an opportunity to shift policies or regulatory issues. This is about money spent, money delivered for the American people, and more money will follow.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: I think I have time for one last question. You served, obviously, as EPA administrator under Barack Obama, and you now have this current position with Joe Biden. How have the opportunities changed from that previous time serving an administration, and how central is the pandemic to this moment of--you described it as opportunity, a whole government approach.

MS. McCARTHY: Let me start with the latter point, Frances, is that the pandemic changed a lot, I think. I mean, President Obama and Vice President Biden was a terrific team. President Biden was great at helping to invest dollars in a way that would get us out of the prior financial challenge, but the pandemic did a couple of things for people in terms of how they think about the world.

I think they stopped questioning climate change as an issue. We have debates now between Democrats and Republicans about how to address climate change, but I'm not seeing a lot of naysayers like we did before. People now know that the world can change on a dime. They recognize the value and the necessity to look at science and what it means, and so I think it changed a lot in terms of how we're talking about climate.

In the meantime, over this period of time since, frankly, President Obama started investing in clean energy when he came on board, there's so many more already ready-to-deploy technologies that can move us forward on clean energy that it's not a scary subject anymore. It's not a blank slate that we're building. We do have those technologies available, and we now know that they're cost effective and people like them. And we understand the health benefits.

I think the challenge is really going to be, moving forward, continuing to show people that we're investing in them. President Biden is very much a people person. If you met him, you'd see it. Everything he thinks about gets translated into what it means for people.

I should probably end where I began which is talking about kitchen-table issues. The climate change and clean energy is about how you're going to not just live a better and safer life and making sure that where you live is resilient and how we build a resilient infrastructure to serve it, but it really just is in the end, at least for me.

I have three grandchildren whom I absolutely adore, not that I don't like my children, my three children. I'm really enamored with these little babies. Two of them are two, or almost two, and one of them is just four months old. That's what a kitchen table is for me--issue--is I want to hand them a future that I'm proud to hand to them, and I am here because I think President Biden views life and his responsibility exactly the same way. He doesn't want to dissect people and say, well, I took care of clean energy, but you lost your job. He's saying uh-uh, uh-uh, people need it all. And if we're smart and we work as a whole of government, we can deliver people a life that's better for them, jobs out of the gate from this pandemic, a sense that we're paying attention to the science, a sense that every dollar we spend is a dollar that should be their investment, their future.

For me as a government employee, I feel like once again we're restoring faith in government, and that they're working for the people and not the leaders. And I just love it.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Gina McCarthy, thank you for taking us to those kitchen-table issues which are also, of course, national and global issues.

MS. McCARTHY: Thanks, Frances. It was great to be here.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: We enjoyed having you.

We have a great lineup of shows tomorrow, including at 12:00 noon, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, who will be on Washington Post Live, and then later in the afternoon at 2:30, Kelly Marie Tran who stars in “Raya and the Last Dragon” will be interviewed by my colleague, Michelle Ye Hee Lee. Don’t miss those shows. You can sign up at WashingtonPostLive.com. WashingtonPostLive.com.

I'm Frances Stead Sellers. Thank you for joining me today.

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