A New Administration Sets a New Tone on Energy Transformation


Department of Energy

Fortnightly Magazine - June 8 2021

With a new administration comes new challenges and opportunities, as ambitious goals were set forth including a carbon pollution free power sector by 2035 and a net zero economy by 2050. But it is the people charged with getting America to its decarbonization goals that PUF finds fascinating.

PUF was fortunate to have a conversation with the DOE's Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Electricity, Pat Hoffman. She has an impressive resume and shared words of wisdom as to the strategic and policy directions this all important government agency will be taking as we move forward to make the air cleaner for everyone. This is a discussion you must listen in on.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: The Biden Harris administration has high priorities in energy. How is the Department of Energy engaged in pursuing these goals?

Pat Hoffman: It's an exciting opportunity and time to be at the Department of Energy. The Secretary is quite engaged in driving some of the goals. Let's first talk about those.

President Biden has laid out an aggressive strategy for combating climate — one hundred percent clean energy by 2035 and the net zero economy by 2050 are significant goals. He's also prioritized the new Office of Energy Jobs, which will help the Department define some energy related job opportunities.

When we look at Building Back Better through the lens of job creation, the President is targeting forty percent of the benefits from certain federal investments to flow to disadvantaged and forgotten communities. That means energy justice is a priority.

But now in my space, I've worked on building a plan for the future of the electric grid and at how we invest in our electric infrastructure to be both clean and resilient.

There are challenges to doing both, and we recognize it. Investment in both the transmission and distribution systems are required and the Department of Energy is in an important strategic leadership position to guide these investments. We recognize that transmission will help provide access to clean energy across the United States and support areas of demand growth, as well as high demand utilization.

As the country continues to electrify buildings and vehicles, the distribution system is going to require investment. We are excited to be a part of the Jobs Plan as we invest in our electric system.

We also recognize that resilience must be part of the discussion. The recent polar vortex — in Texas — is a stark reminder of how the system must be built so we have the capacity to respond to a wide variety of weather and other events.

Technology is the key to enabling the future and provides the opportunity to build jobs and drive domestic manufacturing. Those are some of the key things we're excited about as part of the Department of Energy's engagement to achieve the Administration's goals.

PUF: There are several huge challenges in energy. Those include resilience, cybersecurity, decarbonization, development of renewables, transmission capacity, electrification, natural gas, nuclear, hydrogen, off-shore, and research and development. How is the Department of Energy addressing some of these challenges and what is the biggest priority?

Pat Hoffman: There are many challenges represented within those subjects. Let's first talk about resilience. Resilience must encompass an all hazards thinking, and it comes down to thinking about risk and risk mitigation.

Whether we're talking about climate, cybersecurity, or weather conditions, we need to think about how we evaluate the system and what risk are we willing to accept versus mitigate — how do we stress test the system to determine its capabilities and limitations.

That gets to the heart of our conversations, of balancing affordability, risk mitigation, and then preventing extreme hazards from affecting the system. But this is about people. It's about supporting consumers in the United States and allowing them to have affordable electricity and have lights on, on a regular basis.

Within the Office of Electricity, I've been looking at a three-pronged approach for transmission and integration of renewable generation.

We should be upgrading and increasing the capacity of our existing infrastructure. Where can we squeeze some more capacity? Can we look at dynamic line ratings, power flow control? As you look at interconnection studies, how do we upgrade the connection points so we can allow more generation to come online? Are there simple things, such as reconductoring, that we can do? 

The second approach is, can we build some new capacity with the existing rights of ways? Can we use existing rights of ways permitted for rail and highways — things that will minimize not in my backyard — and the permitting and siting issues that go along with building transmission.

The third one, is developing new high voltage DC segments. We have to develop the capability to analyze the transmission plans that are out there and define where we need to fill in the gaps.

Going back to the lessons learned from the polar vortex and ERCOT, how do we strengthen some of those seams so we can minimize impact on consumers during extreme weather events?

Energy storage is also critical. We need all types of energy storage. We recognize energy storage provides different services to the electric grid. One of the major gaps is long duration energy storage. 

We need to develop energy storage technologies that can capture the timeframe between the ramping that storage provides to longer duration energy storage. We want to look at the next generation of technologies in energy storage. I know that ARPA-e has some interesting projects in this space.

We recognize that cost is still a primary factor in getting energy storage deployed. The question is also how do you value energy storage? We've had these conversations around energy storage and how to evaluate it for years, so can it be considered a system asset, as well as be a support to consumers. 

There is a huge opportunity in the grid space for sensors and machine learning. Visibility will be critical as we get more distributed energy resources on the system. It will also provide keys to unlocking flexibility in operating our system. As we look at sensors, we're looking at asset management, health of equipment, and operating the system differently.

It was during Hurricane Katrina that we were able to operate a subset of the system with phasor measurement units. How can we continue to use sensors as an innovative way to operate the system moving forward? 

And we cannot lose sight of the importance of grid cybersecurity. We've got to be aggressive around cybersecurity and work to increase our maturity level and posture in the cybersecurity space. The Department's Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response (CESER) organization is well structured to move aggressively in addressing these issues.

We have to have better situational awareness. We're going to have to look at cybersecurity tool deployments. The most important thing is the ability to detect and conduct forensics analysis. We need to develop these capabilities at scale and decrease the timeline for discovery. How can we analyze data collectively across the industry?

We're going to have to broaden our partnerships with industry and universities. This will be a great opportunity to expand our cybersecurity workforce and build new skillsets in the advanced computing world of machine learning and AI.

The last area is emphasizing supply chain testing. As we buy products, we need to consider supporting domestic manufacturing. We are also going to have to support vulnerability testing, as well as network architecture.

We have a strong foundation to build on with respect to quality assurance of the physical aspect of supply chain products. Now we are going to have to get into the software side and look at quality assurance.

Ultimately, we need to continue to keep pace with the ever changing cybersecurity environment.

Across the Department, we also have efforts in renewable technology development. Although this isn't my area of expertise, I do want to highlight some of them.

Secretary Granholm, along with the Secretaries of Interior and Commerce announced a national goal for development of thirty gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. This is an exciting opportunity to capitalize on greenfield development.

We'll have to build the associated transmission infrastructure, and we're looking at the potential capital investment in the United States. But we're also looking at the jobs and support for communities from an offshore wind perspective.

The Department through the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has also announced new targets to cut the cost of solar by sixty percent in the next ten years. This means technology innovation, and supporting manufacturing, as well as driving costs down.

Electrifying transportation is exciting. But with electrification, whether it's the buildings or transportation area, coordination with the electric grid and advancements in the distribution system will be critical.

To evolve the grid, do we really want to flatten the load duration curve and react all the time or do we want to think about whether demand response and energy storage in a home with electric vehicles can shape that curve? We're looking at AI, machine learning, and at pattern behavior. Technologies offer a lot of opportunities.

PUF: As you're working at upgrading existing transmission lines, do you see federal agency coordination as a method to halt the state versus federal conflicts where you can't site new transmission on federal lands, as there's not much in Utah except federal lands. 

Pat Hoffman: Coordinating across the federal agencies is going to be important so we can look at energy corridors and see where it makes sense to work to minimize siting and permitting issues.

We're going to have to evaluate our options for building transmission moving forward. It will also require coordination among the federal agencies and the states.

There is no easy solution when it comes to land and land utilization strategies. One of the things we have to think about is taking a holistic approach and having conversations with the states so everyone can see the value and benefit of building transmission.

PUF: NREL did a study on moving power between eastern and western grids. Is that something you're going to look at again?

Pat Hoffman: We are going to take a hard look at transmission planning and scenario analysis.

We're going to continue to build out the capability to do some of that scenario analysis so we can tap the renewable resources available in different regions of the country and bring them to the marketplace.

That will be part of our strategy moving forward. Transmission planning's going to be critical from that perspective. We will have to consider different scenarios. Each region is different, but multi-state regional transmission is not being built.

We recognize that siting, permitting, and cost allocation are challenges. Now we're asking how we can best support solution sets that will help us overcome some of these challenges, because it is a requirement for a clean energy future.

PUF: Where do you fit in among these efforts and how do you work across the organization on a day-to-day basis? What's your typical day like?

Pat Hoffman: I am currently Acting Assistant Secretary for two organizations, the Office of Electricity and the Cybersecurity, Energy Security Emergency Response Office, so I focus on two things.

First, the evolution of the electric grid with respect to reliability and performance and second, how do we improve its security and resilience? I tend to think of myself as a strategist in nature. 

I have three priorities.

Number one is to develop a plan and a strategy to address the challenges that we've talked about with technology solutions. 

Second, we've got to create public-private partnerships. The Department can't do this alone. We must tap the expertise at the National Laboratories and industry in order to address the challenges and risks facing the nation.

Those are two core elements, but in addressing both of those elements, the third element emerges as the need to educate the next generation workforce. We're going to figure out how we can bring innovation in the workforce and get graduates from colleges and universities excited about being in this industry.

When I go back to our successes with grid modernization and advancing information technology through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we've created an excitement around the grid space. This is the future.

Whether it is advanced power electronics, sensors, or the next generation control systems, I want to continue to stimulate that excitement in my organization and in the industry. The service within this industry and at DOE is impressive, and I thank everyone for their support during disaster response to restore power to the American people, as well as their investment in the grid of the future.

PUF: How do you work with the many stakeholders?

Pat Hoffman: Sometimes it can be challenging. We must listen to people's opinions. We need to understand there are multiple ways of looking at a problem and be able to bring stakeholders together.

We want the grid to be an enabler, a platform that allows a variety of technologies to thrive. The grid is a complex environment. It is not an easy subject. We are going to have to bring consumers, regulators, and policymakers together so they can understand some of the challenges in this space. 

How do we balance all of the system requirements from an ancillary service, a ramping, a black start point of view? How do we evaluate the need for capacity and energy on the system? How do we do stress test to ensure the system is resilient? 

We have great expertise at the National Labs, and we lead by example at the Power Marketing Administrations. We are ready to partner and make progress to enabling a better future.