Jeff Navin is the co-founder and partner at Boundary Stone Partners, a consulting firm focused on clean energy and solutions to climate change. These projects include nuclear power, biofuels, solar, electric vehicles and transportation solutions, and other sectors pursuing clean energy. Jeff Navin and his partner both served as Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Energy for a time during the Obama Administration. Navin grew up in South Dakota and volunteered during an election campaign during high school after becoming interested in his politics classes. After graduating from the University of South Dakota, Navin joined the staff for the Congressman he volunteered for in high school. He also pursued his law degree, leading him to leave the Senate and practice law for six months. At this point, a friend of his got elected to Congress in a special election and asked Navin to serve as her Chief of Staff.
Joining President Obama’s Administration
How was the transition from working as a full time lawyer to working in Congress?
Jeff Navin became very good at managing his workload and valued efficiency while he worked in the Senate and attended law school at night. Working in law full time brought a different pace where efficiency was not valued as much, so Navin was excited to return to an office in Congress where he could build a new team and support a new member in Washington. After a number of years, Navin joined American Environics, a political consulting firm which analyzed how people reason and process information about issues by grouping people into similar values instead of similar demographics, across topics such as healthcare and the environment. Navin was an earlier supporter of Senator Barack Obama and took an opportunity to join his Presidential Administration, first as the Deputy Chief of Staff at the Labor Department during the labor crisis. The challenge of the labor crisis was very substantial, and Navin did not have any background in labor policy. Navin transitioned to the Department of Energy a couple years later due to his passion for the energy sector.
Effect of Externalities on Energy Policy
What work did you do at the Department of Energy under the Obama Administration?
When Jeff Navin got to the Department of Energy (DOE), he spent a lot of time dealing with communications and affairs, which led to a response to the Solyndra oversight process. Navin worked to manage responses to oversight requests and subpoenas so the White House knew what was happening. Working for Secretary Chu, Navin focused on providing background and briefing material to prepare Steven Chu to be effective in his role as Secretary of Energy. There are very few jobs in the energy sector where you actually have insights into multiple kinds of technology and multiple sectors of technology. Up until now, there has not been much competition and the intersectionality has not been fully expressed. Battery technologies are having an impact on what’s possible in the power sector and driving transformation of the transportation sector. Energy has been reliant on commodities in the past, such as coal, which was improved only by being more efficient and changed through supply and demand. Externalities like climate change are now driving the need to make big and significant transformational changes. Jeff Navin helped oversee the transition from Secretary Chu, who served for four years, to Secretary Moniz, which involved getting the new Secretary up to speed on programs and budgets. Everybody thought there would be an increased demand in utilities, but the demand flattened with decreased economic activity following the recession and with appliances and lighting becoming more efficient.
Politicization of Climate Change
What was the stage for climate change between 2009 and 2013 while you were working under Secretary Chu?
While Jeff Navin worked under Secretary Chu at the Department of Energy (DOE), everybody knew that climate change was a significant threat and was the reason President Obama placed Chu in his position as Secretary of Energy. It had been politicized, but not deeply divided at this point. At the same time that people had banded together to fight climate change, politics broke, specifically by Senate Republicans who aimed to block any solutions President Obama proposed. This made it difficult to get anything done to fight climate change, a problem that requires global and national cooperation. Every year we don’t act on climate change, it gets much harder to solve the problem because more carbon dioxide is getting put into the atmosphere and it stays there. Navin loves to spend his time outdoors and conservation always mattered to him, in terms of clean air, water, and spaces. At the DOE, Navin did not see a debate about nuclear among the policymakers, as it is a major source of non-emitting energy, although there were some far left opposers. Sometimes the nuclear opposition is viewed to be much larger than it is. Jeff Navin left government and started his firm Boundary Stone Partners with his partner, initially hosting a screening of “Pandora’s Promise” on Capitol Hill where people advocated for why nuclear needs to be an energy solution. Environmental group opposition did not influence policy decisions much, but the nuclear community was not integrated into the environmental and climate change community. Advanced nuclear was used to bring policymakers on board and also to start a climate conversation.
Jeff Navin Advocates for Nuclear
Did your introduction to nuclear come from the Breakthrough Institute?
As a consultant at his firm Boundary Stone Partners, Jeff Navin worked with the Breakthrough Institute to get the “Pandora’s Promise” nuclear event started and began working with Third Way. Navin wanted to understand why some environmental groups had the position on nuclear they had, so they conducted interviews with groups, on both sides of the political spectrum, to determine whether we had a higher chance of succeeding climate change with nuclear in the mix. Jeff Navin also worked to broaden alliances with experts on the nuclear industry side of the sector. There is a firm basis of support from Republicans on nuclear energy, but discussions about cost and spending money tend to be points of conversation. The opportunity for growth in the nuclear industry is with Democrats. Nuclear technology gives us a much greater chance to solve climate change, can work in conjunction with other clean energy technologies, and the U.S. needs it in the toolbox in order to solve the problem. This viewpoint helps give an opportunity to overcome skepticism surrounding nuclear. Many of the folks on the left can be brought to a point in which they are comfortable with nuclear, but will drop support when their preferred technologies, renewables, are attacked. The electrical grid make-up of the future is not a focus of policymakers or energy experts. The more clean energy technologies we have available to deploy, the greater chance we will get to a zero emissions target. Having a goal of 100% clean energy allows competition to think about how to build a clean energy supportive grid.
Challenges of Advanced Reactor R&D
Is it reasonable to get to zero and will we ever be able to reverse climate change?
We are going to confront some very hard challenges in order to get to zero emissions and reverse climate change. Waiting to act on climate change makes it harder and more expensive to fix. Usually, policymakers identify a problem, develop a technical solution, and then implement the solution. With climate change, targets need to be set without knowing exactly how those targets will be reached. Clean energy research and development budgets at the Department of Energy (DOE) could be dramatically increased. Only a small fraction of the DOE budget goes towards R&D, since the department was initially created to build and maintain nuclear weapons, followed by cleaning up the sites used to build the weapons. Basic science research and applied research development both receive a portion of the budget. Small modular reactors, test reactors, and advanced reactors are all in the pipeline for energy research. The amount of capital being deployed into the advanced nuclear industry by venture capitalists is very exciting, but nuclear reactors are extraordinarily complicated and difficult to prototype and demonstrate. A significant investment and partnership from the government is need to make this process possible. With the first budget cycle with Democrats in control of the House, Navin anticipates more money for R&D for clean energy.
Climate Change Policy in Elections
What are you doing in consulting at Boundary Stone Partners?
The climate change solutions that made sense in 2012 are different than the solutions that make sense in 2020. The 2020 candidates for the Democratic nomination to the presidency will be attempting to differentiate themselves on the climate change issue. These platforms can be turned into policy after the election, but they need to be ambitious enough to solve the problem and flexible enough to allow for multiple technologies. If a Democrat is not elected, the issue must be made salient to whoever the presidency goes to. President Trump thinks climate change is a hoax, but has shown a willingness to invest in infrastructure and pursue policies that can put people to work. The U.S. can’t wait another five years before addressing climate change. If Russia and China are making contracts with other countries to develop nuclear power, including 40 to 50 year contracts for fuel, operators, and spent fuel, the U.S. needs to compete to prevent their domination in that industry. If someone does not believe in climate change, or doesn’t think that U.S. policy should take aggressive action towards climate change, the U.S. should be able to flood the market with products in a global society that is taking action action on climate change.
Energy Brings Global Growth
What’s your goal for the energy sector in the future?
The overall goal in the clean energy space is to provide clean, abundant, and affordable energy that is available to everyone on the planet. So much of the world’s history is based upon resources underground, which brings wealth to a country. This has trumped ideas, culture, and human rights. Jeff Navin would love to see a future in which cheap, abundant, clean energy is provided to everyone on the grid, bringing the possibilities for broader education and that a country’s ability to compete in the world is based upon ideas, culture, and contributions rather than just resources.