Interview: Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman

For years, Obama administration officials took a beating on the loan guarantee program for renewable energy development, thanks to Solyndra, so you can’t blame them now for waving their arms frantically, shouting “Look at that! Look at that!” and pointing to the big projects that are coming online.

OK, we don’t know if U.S. Deputy of Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman got that worked up on Wednesday when he was out at Shepherds Flat, the giant wind farm in Oregon that the loan program helped make happen. But while heading to the site, in the car somewhere east of Portland, he told EarthTechling in a telephone interview that the project was a shining example of how one of the right-wing’s favorite whipping boys is actually a shining success.

poneman shepherds flat

Shepherds Flat wind farm, near Arlington, Ore. (image via DOE/Caithness Energy)

“The proof of the pudding is in the results,” Poneman said. He ticked off a list of benefits the 338-turbine, 845-megawatt capacity project has provided, from clean power for hundreds of thousands of homes to employment for more than 400 people over the two-plus years the turbines were being put up. All that, “and no taxpayer dollars go out the door,” he said.

In addition to a partial loan guarantee of $1.3 billion, Shepherds Flat received tax breaks, but no direct outlays, and in 2011, the project got a $500 million private infusion, including $100 million from Google.

Poneman made the case that Shepherds Flat wasn’t an outlier, either, pointing to big solar developments as well as a nuclear project backed by the loan guarantee program. “If you look at the results, we’ve got $55 billion worth of investment between the loan guarantee and private capital and we’ve put tens of thousands of people to work,” Poneman said.

With leadership changes happening at the top of the Energy and Interior departments, the two key federal agencies on energy policy, could the administration’s momentum on renewables be slowed? “To answer that, all you’ve got to do is look at the president’s inaugural address,” Poneman said. “You see a clear commitment on the part of the president to continuing the vision and the energy transition he has pursued that’s led to a doubling of renewables.”

There’s been some talk that Poneman might be under consideration for the DOE’s top post, but Poneman didn’t bite when we asked about the possibility. “I’m just doing my job,” he said. “Every day keeps me fully engaged.”

To wrap up the interview, we asked Poneman about two specific issues that readers have frequently brought up with respect to U.S. energy policy.

First, why continue to support wind power with subsidies like the recently extended production tax credit – can’t wind compete with other forms of energy without government help?

“No major form of energy as far as I know in last 100 years or so made it without some significant governmental role,” Poneman said. Eventually, he said, wind will have to stand on its own feet, “but right now, in a competitive global environment, just as we’re trying to create and build an industry, that would be the wrong time to pull the plug.”

Second, why doesn’t the U.S. pursue renewable energy development more aggressively, using feed-in tariffs as a tool, as Germany has done?

On that question, Poneman shied away from critiquing the German program and feed-in tariffs, which guarantee producers a lucrative payment for the production of renewable energy. But he spoke up for an approach that emphasizes innovation. He pointed specifically to ARPA-E and the SunShot Initiative, programs that Secretary Steven Chu cited as among the most successful of his four years at DOE’s helm.

“We believe that a better approach in general is to bring the cost down so (renewables) can compete, and that is something that is best done through innovative technology,” Poneman said.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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