A motorist passes Akuo Energy's Rocksprings Wind Farm along U.S. Highway 377 north of Del Rio. Credit: Edward Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

The Biden administration could fight climate change with executive actions and investment in better technology, including nuclear power, a top Obama-era energy official said during a Tuesday event featuring San Antonio leaders.

MIT physics and engineering professor Ernest Moniz, U.S. energy secretary from 2013 to 2017, joined San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams for a virtual conversation that focused on how federal energy policy could unfold after President-elect Joe Biden takes office Jan. 21.

Biden plans to reverse many of the Trump administration’s loosened energy regulations, including methane standards for oil and gas production and emissions limits for vehicles. To address accelerating global climate change, the Biden Cabinet “has to come in with a substantial package of executive actions very, very early on,” Moniz said.

“That will obviously include rolling back some of the last year’s rollbacks,” Moniz said.

Moniz emphasized the need for regional policies as states add cleaner but less reliable sources like wind and solar without the ability to transmit that energy and store it for times with still air and cloudy skies. He cited the rolling blackouts California faced in August, when an unprecedented heat wave and issues planning the flow of power on the grid combined to cut power to millions of people.

“These are the kind of things we can fix,” Moniz said. “We’ve got to get things aligned at a system view, but it’s not talked about enough.”

Moniz also reflected on how emerging energy sources could affect Texas’ oil and gas industry. Technologies to capture and store unwanted carbon emissions, develop low-carbon liquid fuels, and harness underground heat could all redirect the fossil fuel industry’s existing assets and manpower, Moniz said.

“The right kind of policy incentives, together with the industries looking at how they evolve in a low-carbon world, in a place like Texas with early mover possibilities … could be a game-changer for Texas,” Moniz said.

Most of the conversation centered on the power sector, where CPS Energy is “really regarded as one of the best-run utilities in the U.S.,” said Clint Vince, chair of the U.S. energy practice at multinational law firm Dentons, who moderated the discussion. Dentons and the Keystone Policy Center, a Colorado think tank that Gold-Williams chairs, hosted the event.

CPS Energy is the No. 1 adopter of wind and solar in Texas and has an open bidding process underway for a new clean energy package that includes solar power and battery storage. However, the utility also operates polluting coal and natural gas plants that currently keep service reliable and insulate its customers from price fluctuations on the Texas grid.

Gold-Williams said her main request of the federal government would be funding to assist in the transition to lower-carbon sources. The utility continues moving in that direction, but “we don’t print money,” Gold-Williams said.

“Everything that happens here comes from all the customers across San Antonio,” Gold-Williams said. “We try to make money in the wholesale market. Some years are great; some years, like this year, are not so great. But what we need is support in the transition.”

Panelists frequently mentioned the power of technology to make tough transitions easier. Moniz touted new generations of nuclear reactors, both fission and fusion, that he said show promising results. Arshad Mansoor, president of the Electric Power Research Institute, emphasized that “while we have to change our personal behavior, technology is the answer.”

“Fifteen years ago, we all bought plasma TVs,” Mansoor said. “That was 500 watts of 42-inch plasma TV. That’s five light bulbs. Technology moved, we went to organic [LED], … and now that 42-inch TV takes 80 watts.”

Nirenberg said he looks forward to the Biden administration rejoining the Paris accord, an international agreement meant to limit the worst effects of climate change. Nirenberg’s first action as mayor in 2017 was to push San Antonio to act on climate, which led to a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 that City Council approved last year.

“The policy decision for me is about rejoining the world,” Nirenberg said.

Disclosure: CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He serves as the assistant manager of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.