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Tina Casey headshot

Leaked DOE Grid Study Favors Renewables -- Will Politics Intervene?

By Tina Casey

When Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered a new grid reliability study last April, he touched off a firestorm of criticism. Environmentalists and renewable energy interests cried foul when a leaked memo indicated that the study would be biased in favor of large baseload coal and nuclear power plants. Even the American Petroleum Institute pushed back against the study, out of concern that natural gas power generation would get the short end of the stick.

Now that a draft of the new study has leaked out, energy stakeholders of all stripes are getting their first look, and the results are...interesting.

The new grid study, leaked draft version

Grid watchers caution that anything can happen between the draft and final version of a study, but so far it looks like the new grid study is hewing closely to the enormous body of research already compiled by the Energy Department.

It also appears that someone at the agency is taking steps to ensure that if there are significant changes, the end result will prove deeply embarrassing to the Trump administration.

Apparently, leaked copies of the draft have been flying around the media. Dr. Joe Romm of the Climate Progress blog reports that he has received it from "multiple sources."

Romm reviewed the draft and gets to the point quickly:

[The draft] has many more surprises — or, rather, findings that are fairly well known to energy experts but may come as an unpleasant surprise to Perry and the White House. For instance, a large fraction of America’s aging fleet of coal and nuclear plants are simply not economic to operate anymore.

Here's another key snippet from Romm:
The draft report finds that since 2002, “most baseload power plant retirements have been the victims of overcapacity and relatively high operating cost but often reflect the advanced age of the retiring plants.”

Romm zeroes in on the draft report's finding that overcapacity is playing a key role in the changes roiling electricity markets:
Between 1970 and 2005, “total US electricity generation grew steadily at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.7 percent.” But since then, the rate has fallen to 0.05 percent — “even as the nation’s gross domestic product grew by 1.3 percent per year over the same period...”

The picture looks just as gloomy for nuclear power plants as it does for coal. Romm notes:
The bottom line is that “as long as natural gas prices stay down and there is an oversupply of energy in many hours of the day and year [because of zero-marginal-cost renewable power] the typical nuclear plant will lose money on every kWh produced, and not be able to make it up on volume.”

Energy Dept. in-house staff comes through

One significant point of criticism was the Energy Department's failure to include outside experts from the grid and energy sectors in crafting the new grid study.

However, a quick look at the agency's previous work on grid reliability indicates that the Energy Department already has a considerable number of experts under its roof.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has an entire branch of research dedicated to grid modernization, called the Grid Modernization Initiaitive. Under that umbrella the lab published 47 journal and magazine articles on its grid modernization research last year alone.

Within that program is the lab's Security and Resilience initiative, which provides a hint that any new grid study composed by in-house staff will be based on a large reservoir of research that includes numerous outside experts including inputs from the commercial and academic sectors:

As part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Grid Modernization Initiative and Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium, NREL collaborates with industry, academia, and other research organizations to find solutions to improve the ability of the grid to identify, anticipate, detect, protect against, and respond to threats and hazards.

In a somewhat ironic coincidence of timing, the Grid Modernization Initiative conducted a peer review event with 16 outside experts in mid-April, right around the time that Perry's memo ordering the new grid study surfaced.


Look over there! Squirrel!

Romm is among those cautioning that the leaked draft could change radically in the final version.

However, that probably won't make much difference. Despite Trump's -- and Perry's -- rhetoric favoring coal, the Energy Department has continued its work on renewables, and there is some indication that it will continue to do so after the final version is released.

That's because a pattern has emerged during the course of Perry's tenure as Energy Secretary.

Except for a brief respite in June (apparently in coordination with the Trump Administration's Energy Week event) Perry and his agency have deployed every media opportunity within reach -- social media, press releases, blog posts and more -- to promote renewable energy to the public.

Perry has been regularly paying lip service to climate change deniers and other elements of the Trump base, but as Energy Secretary he has been steering the same decarbonization course charted by the Obama administration.

Perry is not the only one. Another key policy maker in the Trump administration is Defense Secretary James Mattis. A noted climate hawk, Mattis seems to have carved out a safe space in which Republican legislators can advocate for climate action.

So far that advocacy has been limited to national security matters, but if the trickle of support begins to swell it will reach broadly into Energy Department turf. The agency's mission is rooted in the development of military technology, and it shares research numerous initiatives with the Department of Defense.

If the final version of the new grid study does come out in favor of coal, it could be yet another Perry style exercise in misdirection, intended to pacify Trump supporters while the Energy Department continues its progress on renewable energy and grid modernization.

Photo (cropped): US Department of Energy.

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