Monday, February 18, 2019

DOE Renewable Nominee Sidesteps Controversy

By Rich Heidorn Jr.

President Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program sidestepped controversy in his confirmation hearing Tuesday but was unable to answer several senators’ questions about key legislation and programs.

Assistant Secretary nominee Daniel Simmons, who has been running EERE on an acting basis for the last year, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that his work at DOE is much different than his previous roles at the Institute for Energy Research (IER) and American Energy Alliance — groups backed by the conservative Koch brothers that have supported fossil fuel use and called for Congress to “eliminate” EERE. Simmons also previously worked at the American Legislative Exchange Council, which also backed fossil fuels.

Daniel Simmons DOE Trump

Simmons | Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

In his opening statement, Simmons said his parents’ decision to build “a passive solar double envelope home” sparked his lifelong interest in energy efficiency and renewables. “Since [joining DOE], I have approached this job with an open mind and an eagerness to learn and have focused on following congressional direction while advancing the administration’s priorities,” he said.

Later, Simmons discussed meeting with solar and wind industry representatives in his new role, acknowledging that “we’ve had policy differences in the past.”

Ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) asked Simmons whether he would aid her in convincing the House of Representatives to back Senate legislation increasing energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances. (See House, Senate Conferees Begin Work to Narrow Differences on Energy Bill.)

“I’m not familiar enough with that disagreement to really comment on it; I’m sorry,” Simmons responded.

“O-kayyy … ” Cantwell said incredulously. “This will be a key part of your job, so maybe before we vote on you, you could take a look at that.”

Cantwell also complained that DOE had repeatedly missed deadlines for completing EE regulations. “We had seen a slow walking by some on this, and I’m telling you it’s wrongheaded,” she continued. “ … Our nation is going to be in the manufacturing base very, very competitive on an international basis if we can drive down electricity costs. So, that should be our mantra, and I hope that you will lead that charge.”

“I will … I will not slow walk any of those regulations,” Simmons promised.

Nominees, left to right: Teri L. Donaldson, nominee for inspector general; Karen S. Evans, assistant secretary overseeing DOE’s new Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response; Christopher Fall, director of the Office of Science; and Daniel Simmons, assistant secretary of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program. | Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

In response to a question from Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Simmons also distanced himself from his comments during a 2013 podcast in which he argued that “wind and solar is more expensive and will increase the price of electricity.”

He noted that solar PV costs have dropped sharply in the last five years. “That’s one of the things that [has] changed since I made that statement,” he said.

But Simmons stumbled again under questioning from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has led the — mostly unsuccessful — effort to win Congressional approval for tougher EE standards.

Portman asked Simmons his opinion of DOE’s “Tenant Star” program, the result of narrower EE legislation approved in 2015.

“The Tenant Star program, I’m not familiar enough with that to comment on it. But I will look into it,” Simmons said.

The senator asked whether there were more DOE should be doing on EE without Portman and Shaheen’s larger EE bill. “I’m not familiar enough with the legislation to add on to it,” Simmons responded.

Simmons was the only one of four DOE nominees testifying Tuesday to receive pointed questions from the senators. Also testifying were Teri L. Donaldson, nominee to be DOE’s inspector general; Christopher Fall, named as director of the Office of Science; and Karen S. Evans, who would become assistant secretary overseeing DOE’s new Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response.