Energy Secretary Says National Labs Are Working on Covid Treatments

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette testifies before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Speaking before a House panel Tuesday, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette defended his department’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and also emphasized the importance of securing the national energy grid.  

The hearing before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, which lasted more than three hours, focused largely on the Trump administration’s response to the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 136,000 Americans and infected over 3.4 million, according to a John Hopkins University tracker.

Brouillette, who replaced Rick Perry in the post last December, testified the Department of Energy has established a virtual biology lab that utilizes artificial intelligence, machine learning and photon source analysis to help identify proteins in Covid-19 — critical targets for medicines and therapies. The lab analyzes research from seven sites nationally, including a facility in Idaho and the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, to identify potential virus treatments.

Another national laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has already used a supercomputer known as Summit to screen more than 8,000 drug compounds potentially applicable to Covid-19 treatments, according to Brouillette. Of those compounds, 77 have shown potential to combat the respiratory diseased caused by the coronavirus.

The Oak Ridge facility also helps mass-produce face shields and other health care supplies to help medical facilities during the pandemic.

Congressman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, briefly discussed an executive order issued in May by President Donald Trump that declared threats to America’s bulk-power system and electrical equipment a national emergency. That order outlines restrictions on buying bulk-power system equipment from foreign adversaries, specifically technologies that would “poses an undue risk of sabotage to or subversion of” the U.S. electric grid.

Upton said the president was correct in declaring such an emergency, asking Brouillette if Congress could do more to ensure the order is properly implemented.

While additional action is not needed from lawmakers, Brouillette said, the grid “underpins everything in America, with regard to our electric system,” and the Energy Department aims to operationalize the presidential directive in several ways.

“One, we want to prohibit foreign adversaries from supplying particular, bulk-power system electrical equipment,” Brouillette said. “We want to establish a list of pre-qualified vendors that the utility industry can use to purchase from. We want to develop advisory recommendations for the identification, the isolation, the monitoring and the replacement of any currently at-risk equipment that’s on the system. … And then importantly, what the president has directed me to do is create a taskforce.”

John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, fixated on a proposed 70% cut by the Trump administration to the Energy Department’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, arguing renewable fuel has many benefits for consumers and the U.S. workforce. The availability of low-cost solar energy was essential to providing low-income families alternative energy sources, he said.

Brouillette said the department supports alternative and renewable energy like solar and is looking at the “next generation of solar technologies.”

The department is also working with its National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, to explore alternative technological investments.

“We have technologies where, literally you paint a window and the window itself becomes a small electric generation machine,” Brouillette said. “It’s able to develop enough electricity to power some small appliances. It’s a fascinating technology, it’s that type of technology that I would like to see come to market, much more quickly.”

Covid-19 has also left the global oil market with an unprecedented oversupply, Brouillette said. The nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve has ballooned with more than 21.3 million barrels — 1.5 million of which are being held for Australian reserves.

Stabilizing oil markets is essential to “help the 11 million people supported by the U.S. oil and natural gas industry,” he said.

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