An Energy Fireside Chat between Christian Bruch and Ernest J. Moniz

As part of 2021’s North American Energy Week, President and CEO of Siemens Energy, Christian Bruch, and former Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest J. Moniz had a conversation about the energy future of the world. The conversation ranged across various areas of concern for both the developing and the developed world. In this article, we’ll take up some of the issues they brought up and develop them in more detail.


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Benchmarks for Access to Electricity

Those who are energy-secure don’t often think about how many kilowatt-hours (kWh) they use.  Many tend to think of energy costs as a currency amount on a monthly bill, and those costs vary from country to country. But almost all those bills will charge customers by the number of kWh used.


One kWh is a unit of energy equal to one kilowatt of power being sustained for one hour or 3,600 kilojoules. Dr. Moniz noted that the UN Quality of Life indicators show a positive correlation between access to electricity and human development. More specifically, he noted, “It’s at a couple thousand kWh that we start to see a transformation in families.”


For context, if someone has access to some basic solar panels which they tie in with a similarly basic lead-acid battery, we are talking about the leap between no electricity whatsoever and the ability to have light in the evenings, which can enable work and/or study for families. As the ability to get electricity accumulates, those evenings may add up to hundreds of kWh in a year. 


But thousands of kWh/year mean access to more modern cooking and heating and the chance to change the economic direction of families. Dr. Moniz considers these two benchmarks vital to greater conversations about access to electricity.

Glasgow 2021

One of the ways that the developing world can get better access to electricity for its citizens is in partnership and cooperation with the developed world. One of the ways that those groups have been talking regularly, specifically about energy, is through the United Nations climate change conferences held every year. One that got particular attention was COP (Conference of the Parties) 21 which was held in Paris.


The 2015 Paris Agreement, which has been a political sticking point in various countries since it was agreed to, was momentous. The United States, for example, signed it, exited it, then returned to it. Each signatory country pledged to work together to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.


Various countries would need to go back to their citizens and create national plans which would set out how much they would reduce their emissions (and how). These plans are known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). 


The NDC needs to be updated every five years. Given that there was no COP in 2020, the upcoming meeting in Glasgow is the first “five-year” window that the signatories will have had in which to share the expected progress from their original plans in 2015.


Dr. Moniz was clear in his chat with Mr. Bruch that this upcoming COP in Glasgow could not be limited to words but had to be backed up with actions, and the only way that backup would come would be in the form of strong technical and financial support from the developed world for the developing world.


The goals for the Glasgow COP are ambitious, as one might expect. The one that will get the most attention is listed first: securing global net zero by mid-century. Ways to deliver on that goal include:

  • Accelerating the phase-out of coal
  • Curtailing deforestation
  • Adding more electric vehicles
  • Encouraging investment in renewables


While wind and solar are the renewables that are most often discussed, it’s important to keep our eyes on other renewable energy sources that are being developed.

Dr. Moniz was clear in his chat with Mr. Bruch that this upcoming COP in Glasgow could not be limited to words but had to be backed up with actions, and the only way that backup would come would be in the form of strong technical and financial support from the developed world for the developing world.

Other Renewables


This isn’t flashy new technology: everyone has seen dams at work. The challenge is that many US hydroelectric facilities currently use more energy than they can produce for consumption. More success in recent years has been seen with small-scale projects like underwater turbines and lower dams on small rivers and streams.



Geothermal heat is naturally replenished and is accessible in the earth’s crust. This heat can be captured and used to produce energy. But its infrastructure is costly and there is concern about earthquakes (and the possible consequent destruction of the geothermal infrastructure) in various parts of the world.



Wave energy is “powered” by the moon and as such is always on. But those who live in landlocked states and countries won’t have easy access to this energy. There’s also the question of disrupting ocean ecosystems to harness this energy. 


It’s a very clean form of energy but requires large machinery to be installed to capture it. Storms also disrupt the consistency of the waves, and it is that consistency that makes wave energy so desirable. During storms, energy output will decrease because of the inconsistency of the waves.



When hydrogen is separated from another element it can be used for fuel and electricity. It’s also a clean-burning fuel, which makes it better for the environment. There’s also the possibility to use it in fuel cells for transportation needs. But it needs energy in order to separate it from other elements, so it is inefficient for preventing pollution.



Biomass is organic matter that comes from recently living plants and organisms (burning wood in a fireplace is an example many are familiar with). While the use of biomass creates CO2, the regeneration of plants consumes the same amount of CO2, so it is considered a balanced option. Unlike the other options we’ve discussed, plants need time to grow and as yet biofuels are not used in many applications.


The development of renewables is a major part of the decarbonization of the world economy. This was actually the topic that kicked off the conversation between Dr. Moniz and Mr. Bruch.


Decarbonization is the reduction of CO2 emissions through the use of low carbon power sources, which should result in a lower output of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The low-hanging fruit in this process is the use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind in place of fossil fuel sources like coal, gas, and oil. But those renewable sources are still dependent on highly carbon-intensive processes for manufacturing and parts.


So, while Dr. Moniz concedes that decarbonization necessarily starts with electricity and must make great progress there before it extends to other parts of the economy, be it with transportation and electric vehicles, or to the construction and agricultural sectors. 


There’s also the importance of negative carbon technologies, or removing carbon using sequestration and capture technologies from dilute sources, like the atmosphere or the ocean. Dr. Moniz feels that such technologies don’t get the attention they deserve, despite the significant role they could play in decarbonization.


But he does see hope in the fact that the large utilities in the US are down 45% in emissions since 2005, in part due to a greater reliance on renewables. But renewables themselves are not the answer: as we noted already, they currently rely on intense carbon-based manufacturing processes. Further, there’s the question of storage.

Batteries Are Insufficient

Even if strong renewable options are in place, there still needs to be a solution for storing energy for when the sun doesn’t shine or when the wind doesn’t blow. Dr. Moniz pointed to Texas, which has the most wind of any state in the United States. During one recent year, not only was there a streak of nine days in which no wind blew at all, there was a total of 90 days in the year in which there was no wind. If wind is missing for a quarter of the year from the windiest place in the country, a grid storage solution has to be in place in order to truly harness the wind’s potential.


One of the ways that most of us think of “energy storage” is in batteries, and they have been getting better and better in recent years. But Dr. Moniz insists that batteries are not enough of a solution, even though they currently are the solution for 99% of renewable plants worldwide. This is to say nothing of the fact that these batteries often rely on rare-earth minerals that are a perishing natural resource. 


Some of the alternatives to batteries include:


Pumped hydro

This is a gravity-based concept that moves water from a low to a high reservoir. The water is allowed to descend when electricity is needed. This is an old technology and still provides 95% of US grid storage.

  • Pro: low cost of storage and can hold massive amounts of energy
  • Challenge: difficult to build new plants due to permitting challenges in many developed countries; even if permitting is overcome, costs are in the billions and timelines to construction run into decades

Stacked blocks

What if you used robotic cranes to stack thousands of blocks into a tower structure, then used the power of gravity to then release that stored energy when needed? That’s the principle behind the stacked blocks storage solution.

  • Pro: simple to execute, can be built with existing crane infrastructure and recycled concrete materials
  • Challenge: hasn’t been proven in large-scale projects yet

Liquid air

Surplus electricity is used to cool down air so that it can be stored in pressurized above-ground tanks.

  • Pro: the compression equipment and power generators already exist in mature industries; they are simply being used for a novel purpose
  • Challenge: less effective, offering an estimated 25-70% of the original power when brought back from the cooling process

Underground compressed air

Compressed air goes into an underground storage tank and is then released when needed to generate electricity.

  • Pro: existing plants already exist in Germany and the US
  • Challenge: finding sites that provide the right type of formations to store the compressed air

Flow batteries

This involves circulating liquid electrolytes to charge or discharge electrons via a redox reaction (changing the oxidation state of an atom).

  • Pro: new materials have been discovered for use as the active ingredient; previously vanadium had been relied on, which has had a lot of price volatility
  • Challenge: carcasses of previous companies in this space that failed to deliver

Dr. Moniz pointed out that it’s actually the fossil-based energy firms that can really take advantage of the transition to renewables because of their access to capital, partnerships, and manpower. But those companies can’t take an entire sector on their shoulders.

Dr. Moniz insists that batteries are not enough of a solution, even though they currently are the solution for 99% of renewable plants worldwide.

How Governments Can Help

Each of the solutions noted above has at least one private-sector company championing its cause. But Dr. Moniz believes that governments can play a transformative role in helping accelerate the growth and development of private sector firms in the clean energy space. 


In the energy world, investments have very long time scales and are often capital intensive. Governments should look responsibly at the risk-reward profiles to remove obstacles and regulations that can prevent some companies from moving forward with promising ventures. One way this can be done is by direct investment and loan programs.


While he was Secretary of Energy, Dr. Moniz oversaw a loan program that put $30B of financing into the hands of private capital, which allowed certain areas to start up from scratch, prove viability, and bring in more private capital. The government was able to walk away after reclaiming its original debt investment.


Governments can also help by setting energy efficiency standards. Not only does this lead to a reduction in emissions, but can reduce consumer electric bills. Dr. Moniz noted that the modeling from when these standards had been put in place until 2030 indicated the possibility of 2.5 gigatons of avoided CO2 and half a trillion dollars off consumer electric bills.


Governments can also play a role in helping communities transition from one form of energy to another. Over the years many communities have been devastated when a mine or energy plant closed, which didn’t just create an economic disaster for a town, but challenged families who sometimes had to relocate and find new and completely different forms of income. Thinking about how communities are affected by this new movement to renewables has to be an active part of the process.

What Covid-19 Taught Us

In talking about Covid-19, Dr. Moniz pointed back to the oil shocks of the 1970s. At the time, there was not a great diversity of supply for oil and, in reaction to these painful shocks, the market responded and created a great diversity of supply, lessening the length and pain of future shocks in that market.


Covid-19 underlined the fragility of supply chains across the world, not just in regards to energy, but in every sector of the world economy. Just as the market reacted to the oil shocks in the 1970s, Dr. Moniz feels that the market will look at a greater diversity of supply.

Covid-19 underlined the fragility of supply chains across the world, not just in regards to energy, but in every sector of the world economy.

Net Zero: Not the Destination

“Net zero” is a term that is often bandied about, not only at large gatherings like COP but in everyday news stories about clean energy. This term simply refers to the balance between greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. While Dr. Moniz appreciates the fact that the term is being discussed more than ever, he’s concerned that it can become a distraction.


For him, net zero is simply a milestone on a journey of decarbonization. It’s not a place you get to and then stop. It will be the result of major changes that should result in cleaner and better access to energy for everyone.

Moving Forward

Listening to Mr. Bruch and Dr. Moniz’s chat is sobering but also encouraging. Both men take an optimistic tone in looking at the many difficult challenges ahead, from the everyday consumer, to startups and large firms, to governments and internationally cooperating bodies. Whether that optimism will be rewarded remains to be seen, but it’s clear that there are a lot of dedicated people working for positive change in energy.

The fireside chat between Dr. Moniz and Mr. Bruch was part of North American Energy Week, but it was also the first episode in a new dedicated podcast from Siemens, called the Siemens Energy Podcast.


The energy sector is undergoing an unprecedented transformation, presenting challenges and opportunities. The demand for energy is increasing worldwide and at the same time, it is necessary to combat the effects of climate change and reduce CO2 emissions.


Each week on the Siemens Energy Podcast, we bring you conversations from some of the world’s cutting-edge leaders in energy. Our goal is to help you understand energy, the challenges we face today, and what the future holds.


Topics of discussion will include: Energy Transition, Decarbonization, Energy Storage, Energy Cybersecurity, Decentralized Energy, Hydrogen Energy, Resilient Grids, SF6 Gas, and more.


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