When ‘baseload’ energy becomes a GOP talking point
A statement about “baseload power” by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April frames a debate about the future of the U.S. electricity grid under President Trump.
Perry asked his staff to send him a report by the end of this week on the health of the nation’s high-voltage electricity grid. His memo targeted wind and solar power as suspected threats to grid reliability.
Boosted by “extremist political agendas,” according to Perry, renewable energy undermines baseload power that includes large coal and gas-fired generators, dams, and nuclear reactors. “Baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning electric grid,” Perry declared in the memo.
But studies of power grid reliability suggest the greatest risks aren’t from the gradual loss of coal and nuclear generation, or from too many solar panels. Rather, grid operators and electricity companies struggle with inconsistent federal and state policies developed in a deeply divided political environment. Today, that is what’s buffeting a rapidly evolving 21st-century grid that, in reality, relies on natural gas instead of coal and is integrating increasing volumes of wind, solar and clean technology.
Will Perry’s short-order grid report harness agency policy to support Trump’s goal of reviving a coal-based electric grid? Or will it address trends — that appear irreversible to many in the industry — supporting a multidimensional grid?
“There is a distinction between the political connotation of baseload and the industry’s definitions,” said Devin Hartman, senior fellow at the R Street Institute.
Providing “baseload” doesn’t make the grid more secure. “It just refers to a power plant that operates at a steady rate of output over an extended period of time.”
“The grid, as it evolves, is a work in progress,” said Brattle Group energy economist Judy Chang. “There is no evidence it is less reliable.”
A newly issued report by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), the bulk power network’s security monitor, found that overall benchmarks of reliability were stronger in 2016, a year when the growth of natural gas and renewable generation soared.
“Even the more challenging days in the year demonstrated better resilience than in prior years,” NERC said in its “State of Reliability 2017.”
There are plenty of worries ahead, NERC acknowledged, including growing dependence on gas, with the need for more long-haul pipeline capacity.
Progress or regress?
The recommendations that will go to Perry have been closely held by a drafting team directed by DOE political appointee Travis Fisher, with consultant Alison Silverstein as the principal author. Silverstein is a widely experienced energy analyst who was a senior adviser to a Republican chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under President George W. Bush, and she currently heads one of the major initiatives coming out of President Obama’s 2009 smart grid funding.
Some industry experts speculate that the report will propose federal support intended to hold coal generation at its current 30 percent share of total U.S. electric power production.
It might also recommend a faster phaseout of federal tax support for wind and solar power in line with Trump’s rejection of Obama’s clean energy goals.
But the headline after DOE releases its report could be: “In which century is Perry’s electric grid operating?”
Lying beneath a politicized argument about coal versus natural gas versus renewables is a real-world issue that will become more troubling as the grid replaces old coal plants and nuclear reactors.
That is the need for a vital, esoteric set of what’s called “essential reliability services.” Grid operators need these services to keep voltages and frequencies stable and within precise limits and to ensure rapid responses by generators when power demand suddenly shifts up or down. The NERC report noted “a growing concern that the existing markets do not accurately reflect products necessary to support the new resources being integrated today,” the report said.
“We ran the grid for a hundred years and didn’t differentiate between energy and other services” such as frequency support or fast ramp-up of new supply, said Arshad Mansoor, senior vice president of the research and development group for the Electric Power Research Institute. Grid operators no longer have that luxury, he said.