China, Greta, and Electric: Is the Fifth Risk Over?

Jennifer Granholm
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
November 9, 2021

Unlike her predecessor Rick Perry, the Texas Republican who famously thought the job of Energy Secretary was to be a global ambassador for American oil and gas, Jennifer Granholm came into Joe Biden’s cabinet with a clear understanding of the role. The Energy Department has jurisdiction over the nation’s energy resources—particularly its nuclear energy capabilities—but also its energy goals. And Biden has made abundantly clear, with the recently-passed infrastructure bill and his proposed Build Back Better agenda, that a greener and more energy efficient economy is a cornerstone of it’s vision. It’s up to Granholm to bring many of those goals to life.

A former two-term Michigan governor and a CNN political pundit, Granholm has her own kind of excitable energy that sets her apart from the nerdy bureaucrats who serve with her in Biden’s cabinet. It’s charming, but her shoot-from-the-hip manner sometimes has the effect of generating not-so-great headlines for the administration, like when she recently laughed off a reporter’s “hilarious” question about rising gas prices and growing the nation’s oil supply. She was mostly right on the facts, but right-wing media had a field day with her laughter nevertheless.

Granholm, who was just in Glasgow for the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit, appeared on my Snapchat show Good Luck America soon after. I asked her about high gas prices, whether climate negotiations even matter if big coal-producing counties don’t scale back their carbon footprint, why a Trump voter would purchase an electric car, and more. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Peter Hamby: A question a lot of people have about COP26 is that, yes, India pledged to make a lot of investments in solar and renewables, but most of their energy still comes from coal. China isn’t a party to the summit, but they’re obviously a huge coal polluter. How optimistic can we be that the world will not be on fire if these countries don’t get rid of coal production and come to the table?

Secretary Granholm: I mean, it’s clear that we all have got to move toward clean energy and, you know, for many places—including the United States, where people have spent their entire lives and their parents’ lives pulling up fossil energy from under the earth—we have to make the case to them that this is good for their health and for their communities. It’s also for their livelihoods, that they can see themselves, just as they have powered this country for the past 100 years, they can see themselves powering their nation, our country for the next 100 years. So we’ve got to do a good job of selling this. It’s not just a sales job. It’s gotta be a reality. 

So, for example, when India raised the amount of gigawatts that it is going to put on the grid in terms of renewable energy, they went from 400 to 500 gigawatts. That’s massive. People in India should be able to see themselves in building solar panels, installing solar panels. They’ve got to be good paying jobs. Our hope is that all of these countries feel the pressure to move to clean [energy], even as we’re all angry about sticking with industries that continue to pollute our countries. We have to make sure that we are realistic about where people are who are in those communities but also give them that hope that they can see themselves in that future.

On that note, in terms of selling all of these ideas here in the United States, president Biden went to your home state of Michigan and test drove an electric Ford F-150. That was a big day for Michigan, a big day for Ford and the idea of electric cars. But electric cars only make up, like, 2 or 3 percent of the U.S. car market. How do you convince a Trump voter in Macomb County, Michigan to buy an electric or battery powered car? That seems like a tough sell.

First of all, they’re in Macomb county. They’re probably building these electric vehicles. But I will say this. Everybody, whether you’re a Trump voter or a Biden voter, you care about what’s in your pocketbook. And if you’re going to save, you know, 50 bucks a month every time you fill up, because you’re filling up on sunshine, that is a great message. Because over the course of the lifetime of an electric vehicle, you save $6,000 on fuel and maintenance costs.

But here’s the kicker, is that that Trump voter will want to know, ‘Can I afford this car?’ And we know that electric vehicles, up to this point, have been more than a tick above internal combustion engine vehicles. So how do we do that? 

One of the reasons why the president has put on the table tax incentives at the point of purchasing is, you go to the dealer and you say, ‘I want to collect my tax credit.’ It is going to reduce the cost of that electric vehicle, so that it’s on par with a regular gas powered vehicle. That’s critical. You also want to know that you are going to be able to fill it wherever you go. And right now, those charging stations are in wealthier communities. The private sector hasn’t filled in the gaps. What the Biden administration wants to do is to make sure that poor areas, areas where there aren’t a huge penetration of electric vehicles, rural areas, and along the freeways, that we’ve got charging stations. So people don’t have range anxiety, and aren’t fearful that they won’t be able to fill up. All of that is part of the strategy of moving in this direction. And believe me, the fact that the automakers right now have pledged that half of their fleets will be all electric by 2030 tells you that they see where this is going, which is very exciting

Republicans are obviously blaming the Biden administration for gas prices being high. What is the reason gas prices are high right now, in a lot of places?

I mean, gas prices are high because we went through a pandemic and the pandemic meant that those producers of fossil fuels sat for a while. They didn’t produce as much because the demand wasn’t high, and this is very difficult to turn, you know, it’s not like turning on a dime. It’s one of the reasons why you’re seeing the supply chain backups. The economy has got to get going again before you see the wheels turning. It is ridiculous to say … I’m not even gonna repeat it. Let me just say that the cost of gas, natural gas, gas for your car, oil, all of that is really very hot here [in Glasgow] in terms of topics, because in Europe, the natural gas prices are through the roof. It is Exhibit A for why we’ve got to move to a different kind of energy. You have to diversify to rely upon clean energy. So we’re not relying upon OPEC. We’re not relying upon Russia for natural gas. We are relying on the sun and the wind and clean sources, including geothermal from beneath our feet. And hydro-power. So clean is where it’s at.

The younger generation, led by Greta Thunberg as the pied piper of climate activists, they are extremely passionate about climate change and think that the COP summits aren’t doing enough, that the U.S. isn’t doing enough. And back here in the U.S., the Sunrise Movement was trolling Joe Manchin as he was walking into more negotiations about the Build Back Better agenda, saying that he’s burning up their future for profit. How effective is that kind of activism? Is it effective, or is it kind of an impediment that actually makes legislators kind of uneasy?

Yeah, it’s really a great question. I think it’s clear that pressure from the outside is critical for any movement. You need to have that pressure. You need to energize the next generation. But you also need to have people who are in the trenches, listening to those who are going to take the batons of power. So it’s really important. When it gets personal, that can be counterproductive. So personalizing it is tough. But honestly, I love what Greta Thunberg has done. I love the fact that there’s so much energy around making sure we save this planet, and I think they should keep it up.