We have not looked favorably upon some of President Obama's recent appointees, but Ernest Moniz, who took the reins of the Energy Department in May, is a notable exception.
While the Stanford-trained physicist embraces the White House Climate Action Plan — which Obama outlined in a speech last week before a friendly audience at Georgetown — he is not nearly as hostile to fossil fuels as are other members of the administration, as evidenced by his long-standing defense of coal-generated electricity.
So when Moniz disagreed this past weekend with Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, who said the president had "declared a war on coal," and when the nation's energy chief said the administration's Climate Action Plan "is all about having, in fact, coal as part of that future," we were inclined to believe him.
But an important litmus test faces the president that will determine whether his Climate Action Plan is driven by politics or sound science: federal subsidies for electricity generated by wind and solar power.
The Climate Change Plan's aim is "cutting carbon pollution" that, according to the president, "causes climate change and threatens public health." Thus, Obama wants to use "less dirty energy" — particularly coal, which generates 40 percent of the nation's electricity — and "invest" more in "clean energy" — including solar and wind.
We have no problem with renewable energy as part of an "all-of-the-above energy strategy," as Moniz described the administration's approach last week. But we do have a problem with federal subsidies for renewable energy, particularly when those subsides are not cost-effective.
A study published last week by the National Academy of Sciences noted, "The main reason to build wind and solar plants is to reduce air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions." That being the case, concluded the study's authors, "the Southwest and California are about the last place[s] in the U.S. where plants should be built."
That's because wind and solar achieve greater health and climate benefits in places like Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania, said Kyle Siler-Evans, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, because in those locations renewable sources replace electricity generated by coal plants.
"A wind turbine in West Virginia displaces twice as much carbon dioxide and seven times as much health damage as the same turbine in California," said Dr. Siler-Evans. Meanwhile, a kilowatt hour of solar will reduce twice as much carbon pollution in western Pennsylvania as it will in California.
Yet, federal subsidies for wind and solar energy are the same for California as for West Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states where the tax dollars could do more good.
Study co-author Inez Lima Azevedo argued, "If we are going to justify the added cost of wind and solar on the basis of the health and climate benefits that they bring, it is time to think about a subsidy program that encourages operators to build plants in places where they will yield the most health and climate benefits."
That is the test for the Obama administration. Will it continue, indiscriminately, to subsidize solar plants and wind farms, no matter where they are built, no matter how little the return on "investment" to the taxpayers?
Or will President Obama take seriously the findings of the National Academy of Sciences study, redirecting energy subsidies away from states where they do the least good, to states where solar and wind can reduce the most carbon pollution?
We urge Secretary Moniz to advocate the latter.
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