THE DOE IS ABOUT TO RELEASE A CONTROVERSIAL STUDY OF THE GRID
A controversial study of the electric grid, requested by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April, is finally expected to be released this month. And to some experts, its exact purpose remains, well, questionable at best.
In an April memo to energy department staff, Perry called for a study investigating whether certain federal energy policies, such as subsidies for renewables like wind and solar, were prematurely forcing coal, nuclear and other baseload power plants into retirement—and whether this is a problem for the grid’s performance. These issues, he writes, are “central to protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid.”
But the request has sparked alarm among renewable energy advocates, some of whom are bracing themselves for a report they fear will become a vehicle for the Trump administration to attack wind and solar energy. These fears are compounded by the fact that the person Perry has appointed to lead the study is Energy Department political appointee Travis Fisher, a former economist from the right-leaning Institute for Energy Research, who has previously criticized the existence of federal tax credits for renewable energy.
And while the report’s findings are still to be seen, other energy experts say the motivation for the study—and what it will actually accomplish once released—remains murky. The study seems to rely on several inaccurate assumptions, they say, and its purported goal of protecting grid reliability may actually be threatened by the Trump administration itself.
In its most recent 2018 budget proposal, the White House has proposed significant budget reductions for the Department of Energy, including cuts to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. The latter two programs, in particular, would seem to support research that’s directly related to Perry’s interest in supporting baseload power plants and safeguarding grid performance.
“There are probably multiple motivations [for the study],” said David Victor, an energy policy expert at the University of California San Diego. “The most uncharitable one is that this is a report being created by the political leadership of an agency that doesn’t have a vision for what they’re going to do, and they don’t have control over their budget, it seems — and so they’re kind of hunching around for something to do.”
A more optimistic perspective, he suggested, is that the forthcoming report is intended to be used as a kind of “road map” for the federal government and interested states to explore and prepare for the challenges that may face the grid as the US energy landscape continues to evolve. But its contents, once they’re revealed, will speak volumes about whether this is actually the case.
A Faulty Premise
Perry’s request is based around the idea that “baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning grid,” as he writes in his memo—and that recent closures of baseload power plants are threatening the grid’s reliability.
By “baseload,” he’s referring to power plants, such as coal and nuclear plants—both energy sources favored by the Trump administration—that are able to produce a constant supply of electricity to satisfy minimum demand. Wind and solar, on the other hand, are what’s known as “intermittent” energy sources because they can’t be harnessed in the same location all the time—they only provide energy when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.
While small communities with their own microgrids and battery storage systems may be able to power themselves entirely on renewable energy, for the US as a whole it’s true that intermittent sources alone would be unable to meet energy demands around the clock without significant improvements in energy storage technology, which would enable utilities to save up energy as it’s generated and deploy it later as needed.
But much of the controversy surrounding the grid study stems from Perry’s implication that federal policies, including subsidies for renewables, are responsible for edging baseload power plants out of the picture—and that they’re doing so to an extent that they “create acute and chronic problems for maintaining adequate baseload generation and have impacted reliable generators of all types,” as Perry writes.
These suggestions rely on inaccurate assumptions about both the energy market and the grid, said Ryan Fitzpatrick, deputy director of the clean energy program at centrist think tank Third Way.
For one thing, the challenges facing baseload power plants are hardly being driven by federal policies alone. In fact, the greatest single factor in the decline of coal has actually been the rise of cheap natural gas, Victor noted — not renewables. Coal has just been unable to compete.
That’s not to say that the continued expansion of renewables like wind and solar are not helping to edge coal out of the picture, but they’re hardly the primary culprit. According to Victor, it seems unusual that the new report doesn’t call for a greater focus on natural gas — although, he noted, this could be another indication of the administration’s interest in simply “bashing renewables.”
Renewable industry trade groups have already expressed their worries about these potential biases in an open letter to Perry, submitted in May, which called for a transparent review that’s open to public input and voiced concern about what they see as the study’s “faulty premise.”