A new vision for the US DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE): An interview with Daniel Simmons

Editor’s note: pv magazine has had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Simmons, the new head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). We covered Simmon’s appointment by the Trump Administration earlier this year with a healthy dose of skepticism, which was referenced in the interview. But don’t stop with first impressions or assumptions. Simmons has a lot of interesting things to say about EERE, which he will be taking in a new direction with an intensified focus on grid integration of wind and solar.

pv magazine: Can you talk about your background at EIR and ALEC, and how this experience relates to your current role at the Department of Energy’ Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy?

Daniel Simmons: I came to DC 19 years ago. And in this time I’ve either worked on environmental policy or energy policy, and it has morphed from environmental to purely energy policy. At the Institute for Energy Research it was all energy policy.

The Institute for Energy Research does not support subsidies and some people have confused that with saying that we are anti-renewable subsidies. The reality is that the Institute for Energy Research is anti-subsidies for all types of fuel. What they want is a level playing field in energy so that people can make the decisions for themselves about what sorts of applications and what sorts of energy they want, to best fit their needs, as well as the prices that they want to pay, so that people can make informed decisions.

So really what it comes down to is a level playing field, and that has been misinterpreted by some, including Frank Andorka.

I am so pleased that you are reading our articles. Can you provide a big-picture overview of your vision of the department and how it should work?

The administration’s position, and this is from Secretary Perry, is that we are focused on affordable and reliable energy to promote economic growth and energy security. Starting with affordability, we want lower cost energy. That is right in line with the SunShot goals of reducing the cost of solar power.

Another thing that matters there, as well as in the economic growth – What matters is that people want optionality. Ten years ago, the energy landscape looks completely differently than it does today. We had high priced gas, we had much higher priced renewables. That has dramatically changed over the last 10 years.

Natural gas prices are dirt cheap, solar is decreasing, wind is decreasing. What the administration is focused on is early stage R&D to make sure that we have energy to power the future, given that the past 10 years have shown us how much we don’t understand the future, for whatever happens to make sense in the future.

With SunShot reaching its cost targets – and I have seen some statements that you have made in the past about the costs of renewable energy – how have solar costs have changed over time, and how this has affected your view of solar as an energy resource?

The reductions in solar costs – I did not foresee them, I also did not foresee the reductions in the cost of natural gas. I did not foresee that we would have the price of oil around $50 a barrel or wherever it is today.

I admit that I didn’t see the cost of solar and wind decreasing as fast as it has. One of the things that we have to understand is that technology is dynamic – incredibly dynamic – and it is important to have as much flexibility as possible to respond to changing prices.

With solar PV, given intermittency, there are obviously challenges that we have with integrating into the grid. A big focus of the administration is on reliability, making sure that as we are integrating more solar and wind into the grid that we are achieving a more reliable, resilient electricity grid.

And at the same time that we are making sure that we keep a focus on affordability. One of the things that concerns me is that we have dirt cheap natural gas, we have cheap coal for that matter, the existing nukes are rather inexpensive, we have falling solar prices and falling wind prices, and the price of electricity that rate payers pay is slightly increasing. It hasn’t changed that much, but given that these inputs should be a huge part, the prices have not necessarily translated into much benefit for consumers yet.

That is a concern. And I’m not laying that at the feet of solar, it just is. And so making sure that as we are reducing the cost of solar, reducing the cost of wind, and we are seeing these lower prices for natural gas, and the rest of the electrical grid, that those benefits can be passed on to the people who matter most, the regular ratepayer.

What do you see as the role of batteries and behind the meter resources in the integration of higher levels of wind and solar?

Right now there is obviously an incredible demand for energy storage, and there will continue to be a high demand for storage, given the intermittency of all the new wind and solar coming onto the grid. We have to have a grid that is as reliable and stable as it is today and not in the future. One of the things that we are looking at at EERE is trying to look very holistically at energy storage, so that we are looking at the possible interaction with buildings. Integrating storage and also looking at the interactive controls of buildings and some of the users of energy to essentially have virtual batteries, and trying to look holistically at energy storage and what we are trying to accomplish.

The future isn’t necessarily tons and tons of lithium-ion batteries. As the past 10 years have shown us we don’t necessarily understand what that future is going to be, but being able to look at a number of options for moving beyond some of our current paradigms of storage.

Looking forward to 2030 what do you expect the U.S. electric grid to look like in terms of a mix of resources and the roles of those various resources?

I rely on the Energy Information Administration for those kinds of projections because they can give a much more expert opinion, and they have those forecasts. I don’t have a better informed vision than they do. Obviously we are going to see more solar and wind on the grid. And that will continue to present challenges, particularly in places like California and other places with very aggressive renewable electricity standards. There are going to be some new challenges in integrating these high penetrations of intermittent resources.

President Trump proposed a 69% cut in your office, EERE. What is your perspective on the proposed budget levels and what it would look like to run an office with only 30% of the current budget?

It would be a challenge. Given my role I support the president’s budget, it’s my job. The point about the budget is a budget, especially a proposed budget, is a starting point. Congress has its own opinions, the executive branch, our job is to execute the policies, execute the law.

And congress, in its first iterations of the budget has far higher levels than the proposed budget. The house was a budget of $1.1 billion, the Senate was at a budget of $1.9 billion. I’m not going to prognosticate about where it is going to end up, but the what matters at the end of the day is the money that congress appropriates.