The Energy Secretary Is Wrong: The Grid is Ready for Renewables
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will soon release a study asserting that wind and solar energy are undermining the electricity grid and that only fossil fuel and nuclear plants can assure the grid’s reliability.
Making this prediction requires no extrasensory powers. It stems directly from the April 14 memo by Energy Secretary Rick Perry that ordered the study. Echoing a popular argument of the fossil fuel industry, Perry wrote that pro-renewables regulations issued by past U.S. administrations “threaten to undercut the performance of the grid” and have caused “the erosion of critical baseload resources” derived from coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy. In stating these controversial views, Perry seemed to dictate the study’s findings.
The study is being led by Travis Fisher, who, until he became a DOE senior advisor in January, worked for the fossil fuel-funded Institute for Energy Research. While at the institute, Fisher published a report calling clean energy policies “the single greatest emerging threat” to the nation’s grid. Given the potential risks to the grid from cyberwarfare, terrorism, and extreme weather, that’s a highly dubious allegation.
Perry and some fossil fuel industry officials maintain that because wind and solar power are intermittent — that is, they function only when the wind blows or the sun shines — they threaten the grid’s stability. They argue that only fossil fuel and nuclear plants can provide a constant flow of power, which they say the grid needs.
A range of measures should enable the grid to maintain stability as renewables spread.
But a succession of rigorous studies — including a widely cited two-year study conducted by the DOE itself in 2012 — has found that renewables can provide as much as 80 percent of the nation’s energy supply without disrupting a properly managed grid. And that doesn’t mean that 80 percent is the upper limit of renewables — it indicates only that levels beyond 80 percent weren’t thoroughly investigated. A range of measures should enable the grid to maintain stability as renewables spread. These include broadening each regional grid’s reach to take in a greater variety of energy sources, installing more transmission lines, and increasing electricity storage, mostly in the form of batteries. The 2012 DOE study foresees a five-fold growth in the use of batteries by 2050, a realistic goal given batteries’ increasing efficiency and plummeting cost.
In contrast to the earlier studies, Perry’s is cursory — he wanted it completed in 60 days — and appears to address political concerns, not technological ones. David Pomerantz, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based utility watchdog Energy and Policy Institute, calls the study “a politically motivated effort by the Trump administration to create some kind of justification for pro-coal policies when, in reality, no such justification exists.”
President Trump has vowed to revive the reeling coal industry, and administration officials blame regulations that facilitate renewables — including former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan — for coal’s rapid decline.
But contrary to Perry’s memo, the success of renewables is not what has rendered coal plants uneconomic — the extremely low cost of natural gas, which sets prices in the energy market, has done that.
Perry’s line of thinking is far from unanimous even among Republicans. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, whose state generates a third of its electricity from wind, the highest percentage of any state in the nation, dismissed the study in a letter to Perry as “anti-wind.” Six other Republican senators wrote Trump to object to his proposed cuts in DOE research and development funding, including a 70 percent cut in renewables research.
Not coincidentally, the renewables-are-destroying-the-grid argument has arisen while their production is soaring. In fact, renewables are triggering a transformation in the power sector, as lethargic utilities awaken to the widespread opportunities of a decarbonized, electrified energy system. In some areas, new unsubsidized wind and solar energy is already cheaper than natural gas and promises to get cheaper still, as a slew of innovations and economies of scale are rolled out, including new materials for photovoltaic cells and more sophisticated ways to shift electricity use from high-cost to low-cost times of the day.
Renewables have accounted for a majority of the nation’s new electricity-generating capacity since 2015, and that proportion is expected to grow. Leading industrial and commercial corporations are loading up on renewable energy. One example is Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s behemoth holding company, which has invested more than $6 billion in five solar farms, two of which will be the nation’s largest solar installations.
The grid operates under certain inescapable realities. The amount of electricity delivered to the grid must equal the amount that consumers take from it, or else power stations and transmission lines can break down, causing blackouts. And wind and solar are variable sources of energy: wind turbines don’t turn without wind, and solar panels don’t work without sunlight. Fossil fuel and nuclear advocates like to contrast this set of attributes with their favored energy sources, which, they claim, provide an unvarying flow of energy — a dependable “baseload” supply.