Joe Biden is set to pick former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to lead the U.S. Department of Energy and former EPA chief administrator Gina McCarthy as domestic "climate czar," elevating two women with strong Democratic party credentials and records on combating climate change to play key roles in enacting the president-elect’s climate change policy agenda. 

Granholm has deep roots in a state at the heart of the U.S. auto industry, having served as Michigan attorney general from 1999 to 2003 and as governor from 2003 to 2011. She worked with then-Vice President Biden on the Obama administration’s auto industry bailout plan and post-2008 recession stimulus package that boosted U.S. automakers‘ electric vehicle and battery technology development. 

Granholm, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, had not been on a shortlist of three former Energy Department officials seen as likely picks for the Energy Secretary role. Those included Ernest Moniz, a physicist and former Energy Secretary under President Barack Obama; Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and former deputy energy secretary; and Arun Majumdar, former Acting Under Secretary of Energy and first chief of DOE’s blue-sky research program ARPA-E. 

Granholm’s selection was first reported by The Wall Street Journal and had not been immediately confirmed by the Biden transition team on Tuesday afternoon. 

Granholm’s close relationship to Biden, her work with Michigan auto industry executives and unions, and her “massively inspiring” understanding of the “full opportunities of the clean energy transition” will suit her well in leading an agency that will be at the center of the Biden administration’s ambitious goals, said Dan Kammen, a UC Berkeley energy professor who’s worked with Granholm. 

“She absolutely gets it on the technology side. She also gets the need for innovation,” Kammen said in a Tuesday interview. “She’s had extensive experience running large, complex institutions,” not only as a governor but as a founding member of the American Jobs Project, a national research project focused on creating state-by-state advanced energy industry clusters, he added. 

DOE is the country’s primary source of funding for clean energy research and development, as well as loan and grant programs that have spurred renewable energy, energy storage and grid modernization development since the 2008 recession. The agency has continued funding energy research and development under the Trump administration’s first Energy Secretary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and under Acting Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette since Perry’s resignation last year, although the Trump administration regularly proposed to eliminate those budgets, only to see Congress decline to do so. 

Under the incoming Biden administration, DOE’s role is likely to expand dramatically. The agency will be largely responsible for funding and guiding development of energy efficiency and clean energy initiatives across the federal government. 

It will also be a key agency in setting electricity sector policies to enact Biden’s $2 trillion plan to decarbonize the country’s energy sector by 2035 — a plan that will depend on congressional support that may not be forthcoming from Republicans if the party retains control of the U.S. Senate. 

This radical energy transformation will require support in states and from industries across the country, Kammen noted. Granholm, along with Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana mayor and Democratic presidential candidate tapped to be transportation secretary by the Biden administration on Tuesday, are “two people who understand the challenges in the Rust Belt but also understand the opportunities,” Kammen said. 

Greg Gershuny, executive director of The Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program, said in a Tuesday statement that Granholm “was focused on the clean energy transition as governor of Michigan, and she knows that the center of a successful transition will be whether we can create and train people for clean energy jobs.” 

“Her relationships with the workers and the unions that represent the auto manufacturers, steelworkers and other industries, especially in the Midwest, that will be impacted by the transition will give President-elect Biden a critical voice with some of the communities most impacted,” he added in the statement. 

DOE is also a key agency in setting energy efficiency standards for the country’s building industries and appliance manufacturers, which have been weakened under Trump administration directives. Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said in a Tuesday statement that DOE “needs a day-one, aggressive effort to update appliance standards and support stronger building energy codes.” 

Gina McCarthy to become "domestic climate czar" 

Separate reports out Tuesday from several news outlets said the Biden-Harris administration is expected to select Gina McCarthy, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, to fill a role designed to coordinate domestic climate response across agencies. The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for confirmation on McCarthy’s selection. 

McCarthy’s role as "domestic climate czar" is geared to enable the incoming administration’s goal to take a systematic approach to climate policies across the entire government to more holistically address the issue. The Biden administration is expected to establish the position within the White House.

McCarthy, who currently heads the environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council, is a “brilliant pick” for the role, said the Aspen Institute’s Gershuny, who served as Director of Energy and Environment in the Presidential Personnel Office and at the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis during the Obama administration. “She knows the inner workings of how to make climate action happen at EPA as well as other agencies. She is a senior figure who brings the gravitas to organize cabinet members to move on implementing policy and holding them accountable.”  

During the Obama administration, McCarthy’s EPA toughened auto emissions standards and laid out methane regulations for the oil and gas industry. McCarthy also helped steer the creation of the Clean Power Plan, which established emissions limits on power plants. All of those regulations were upended in some form during the Trump administration.

Biden has promised to go further than the Obama administration on environmental regulations. McCarthy will be tasked with helping fulfill that pledge after four years in which the Trump administration undid much of her legacy.

“There’s a lot of great expertise from the Obama administration. There’s a lot of talent that served and a lot of lessons learned. So many of us have spent the last few years thinking about what went right, let’s do more of that, what could we have done better, and let’s make adjustments and improve,” said Brandon Hurlbut, a partner at consultancy Boundary Stone Partners and former chief of staff at the Department of Energy. “Climate is a more urgent crisis than ever, so the policy agenda needs to evolve to match up with that.”

Despite the Trump administration’s replacement of the Clean Power Plan with the less restrictive Affordable Clean Energy Rule, coal generators have continued to close down in recent years as renewables proliferated. Biden campaigned on a target of 100 percent clean energy by 2035, a goal that makes the domestic climate coordinator position one to watch for the renewables industry, said Abigail Ross Hopper, the president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, another alum of the Obama administration, was named to a similar role with an international focus last month. While Kerry will work to reestablish U.S. authority in global climate negotiations, McCarthy will help institute policies to meet those targets at home.