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DOE Grid Reliability Study Threatens Renewable Energy Branding

By Tina Casey

Access to renewable energy is a key piece in the green branding toolkit for businesses. But a new grid reliability study could put a crimp in the growth of wind and solar power in the U.S.

Critics say the study, which was ordered last month by the Department of Energy and is still in progress, was pre-designed to support more reliance on conventional power sources and less on wind and solar.

If the study reaches its predestined conclusion, it will contradict a series of previous analyses conducted by expert researchers who demonstrated that the U.S. grid can absorb much more wind and solar power while maintaining reliable delivery, even without game-changing technological breakthroughs.

The mysterious new grid study

The new study appears to be more in the nature of a think-tank thought piece rather than a serious attempt at factual analysis.

The grid reliability review is expected to take only 60 days, Energy Secretary Rick Perry wrote in an April 14 memo obtained by Bloomberg. That's a rather tight timeline considering the nature and scope of the U.S. electrical grid.

More importantly, there has been no visible attempt to enlist experienced researchers and other knowledgeable stakeholders.

Another indicator of a pre-determined outcome is the lobbying background of the two Energy Department officials tasked with overseeing the study, say critics.

Energy Department Chief of Staff Brian McCormack, formerly of the Edison Electric Institute, has a hands-on role. And the designated author of the study is Travis Fisher, formerly of the Institute for Energy Research, according to news reports.

The review launched with Perry's memo in mid-April, and so far the entire process has been conducted in the dark, thus the mystery.

Earlier this month, several leading stakeholders in the renewable energy field attempted to gain access to the process, reportedly to no avail.

A group of seven Democratic senators also wrote to Secretary Perry on May 1 with the following observation:

"This Study appears to be a thinly-disguised attempt to promote less economic electric generation technologies, such as coal and nuclear, at the expense of cost-competitive wind and solar power."

The renewable energy gloves are off!

The Energy Department is also getting a first taste of pushback from Republican legislators.

On May 1, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley -- a fierce, longtime advocate for wind energy -- fired off a letter to Secretary Perry that exposes several fatal flaws in the study as it was framed by the DOE.

Grassley poses his criticism in the form of five questions.

First he asks if the Energy Department intends to work with any major grid reliability stakeholders "to ensure that the issues are 'rigorously studied and analyzed.'"

Then, he asks if the Department has hired or expects to hire "a contractor to conduct the study or assist with the study."

Grassley also asks for process details, including:

"Who is conducting the analysis, who will draft the study, who is primarily responsible for approving the content, and what experts -- internal and external -- will be consulted for the study?"

Grassley also expressed concern that the study "will not be viewed as credible, relevant or worthy of valuable taxpayer resources." His fourth question underscores that concern:
"How much do you expect the study to cost taxpayers? Please provide a full accounting of the dollars expected to be spent in the study."

That line of inquiry is a lose-lose for the DOE. If the agency lowballs the cost, it further undermines the credibility of its own study. If it sets the cost at a credibly high point, it will raise even more questions about the qualifications of the study's authors and sources.

Grassley also asked Perry if the DOE intends to "publish the report in draft form and take comments" in order to "benefit from the expertise and input of stakeholders."

American business hearts renewable energy

Grassley expects answers to all five questions by May 25, so stay tuned for that.

Meanwhile, wind and solar industry leaders like the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) are working to stir up pushback from the business community.

Things are pretty quiet right now. But if the grid study concludes as expected, there could be plenty of fireworks from companies that stake their green brands on the expansion of wind and solar opportunities.

Aside from the usual renewable energy suspects (Amazon, Microsoft, Ikea, etc.), some new names are popping up on the green brand radar.

That includes L'Oreal USA, which recently achieved 100 percent renewable energy for its U.S. manufacturing facilities.

Another up-and-comer in the 100 percent renewables club is the software and management company Salesforce, which hit its carbon-neutrality target 33 years ahead of its initial goal.

These companies and many others like them plan to grow, and they plan to grow with renewable energy.

Image credit: Pixabay


Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey