Wanted: energy experience

In filling this key Cabinet post, President-elect Obama should choose proven leadership over politics

December 04, 2008|By John A. Bewick

When President Bill Clinton appointed Bill Richardson to run the Department of Energy, Mr. Richardson's resume was strong on political skills - 14 years as a congressman and one year as ambassador to the United Nations - but short on knowledge of energy. As a result, his tenure is remembered more for the Wen Ho Lee controversy than for any important energy initiative.

Now, suppose Mr. Clinton had instead selected a knowledgeable industry leader - Jack Welch of General Electric, for example. The results might have been more lasting.

Do we really want a Washington insider to run a multibillion-dollar agency whose mission is to create a whole new generation of clean energy technologies? The U.S. needs clean-coal technologies; safe, advanced nuclear power reactors; affordable, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar; and advanced, smart electric grids and cars powered with new technologies such as plug-in nanotech batteries. To oversee the transformation of our nation's energy infrastructure will require a proven leader - a professional who knows what's needed on Day One. Yet some of the candidates floated as potential nominees for energy secretary in an Obama administration do not inspire confidence.

As the economic bailout is reaching trillions of dollars, President-elect Barack Obama is turning to the brightest economic talent in the nation with records of accomplishment - people like Paul A. Volcker. Why not use the same criteria for energy secretary?

If that is the standard, here are some possibilities:

* John Krenicki, president of GE Energy, whose portfolio of technologies either developed by GE or in process include nuclear reactors, advanced coal combustion, wind and solar power, smart grid components, power turbines and more.

* Ernest J. Moniz, former head of the physics department at MIT and chairman of the MIT Coal Study that laid out a comprehensive coal research, development and deployment program several years ago.

* Stephen Specker, CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, the utility industry's research arm, and a former senior GE energy manager. The institute has already developed a comprehensive energy research, development and demonstration plan, so there would be no on-the-job training required with regard to the programs needing funding and support.

By contrast, candidates on the president-elect's list for the position include many who simply are not qualified from a technical perspective. They include several prominent governors, respected Washington insiders who have never developed a commercial product, and directors of innovative corporate programs that rely on other corporations to develop needed technologies.

It is useful to look at the credentials of current Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman. He has a doctorate in chemical engineering, spent years in research and venture capital investment in new technologies, and ran a chemical company before getting into government - initially at the Commerce Department, where he developed political skills. At the Department of Energy, he has shaped a comprehensive energy program; made tough calls when a major commercial development project got too expensive and investment in alternatives was called for; and instilled management discipline. But he was stymied by a vastly underfunded clean energy program, and his options were severely restricted by an administration that did not believe in man-made climate change or innovative approaches to research and development projects.

The Obama team would do well to consider technical expertise as well as political expertise when selecting our energy innovation leaders for the next four years. Some combination may work. Rumors suggest that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might be named White House energy czar. Such an appointment, coupled with a proven technology leader, might make a powerful team to complement the strong economic and national security teams Mr. Obama is putting in place. Let's hope so.

John A. Bewick, a consultant on global warming who graduated from Baltimore public schools, is a former Massachusetts secretary of environmental affairs. His e-mail is jbewick@comcast.net.

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