Energy Dept. Pulls The Rug Out From Under Its Own Coal-Friendly Grid Study With Pitch For Wind, Solar

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In the weeks leading up to the Trump Paris pullout, energy watchers were already alarmed by a forthcoming US Energy Department grid study that seemed intended to justify the case for coal before it even got under way. Meanwhile, various branches of the same agency have been pitching solar and wind like there’s no tomorrow. What gives?

Energy Dept. Pitches Solar…

The latest development is a renewables-friendly update of the Energy Department’s ongoing Grid Modernization initiative.

CleanTechnica has previously noted that the Energy Department has been unloading reams of good news about renewables ever since Energy Secretary Rick Perry assumed the helm. The agency kept promoting wind and solar even after the appointment of fossil fan Daniel Simmons as head of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). With the new grid modernization update Perry appears to be setting up Simmons and the authors of the coal-friendly grid study up for a fall.

The update appeared in the form of a May 31 press release from none other than EERE, and the timing is significant.

First, in true reality show style, President Trump had been building up to his Paris announcement for days. The June 1 date was set but nevertheless, EERE sent out its press release just one day before, in what appears to be one last attempt to point the Commander-in-Chief in the direction of keeping the US in the Paris climate accord.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at that May 31 press release. It makes a pitch for grid modernization in terms of taking greater advantage of solar and wind energy.

As parts of the nation’s aging grid have to be replaced or upgraded anyway, the idea is to leverage that work to create a single grid that would provide coast-to-coast energy transmission. Currently, the nation is chopped up into two regions plus Texas, separated by “seams.”

The basic problem, grid-wise, is that much of the nation’s best solar and wind resources are concentrated in the southwest:

The central United States, in particular, has been a major source of American power since the 1950s. More recently, there have been substantial increases in renewable energy capacity with the development of wind and solar resources in the central plains and desert southwest.

But we may not be taking full advantage of these resources, due to the seam that separates our power systems.

EERE also takes  a subtle jab at the notion that coal can compete on cost with renewables:

On one hand, power system planners are able to act locally and focus on their individual footprints to meet system demands. On the other, systems planners see an opportunity to connect these resources to drive down electricity costs that lead to economic growth.

To be clear, any move toward a seamless national grid will also provide huge benefits to the natural gas industry, and the US shale boom shows few signs of giving up the ghost.

However, the EERE press release doesn’t mention natural gas. It relies on wind and solar to make its case.

About That New Grid Study…

The EERE press release also takes a sharp poke at the coal-friendly grid study. Among the many objections to the study, critics have pointed out that it is an overambitious, quick-and-dirty, 60-day effort that seems to involve zero bona fide stakeholder input or academic research.

In contrast, here’s the EERE rundown on its Grid Modernization initiative:

DOE has committed to invest more than $220 million over three years for the national laboratories and partners to conduct critical research and development across a range of grid modernization topics.

I know, right? The press release also goes on to note that just one part of the initiative, the Interconnections Seam Study, involves numerous A-list researchers from the Energy Department’s own laboratory network and industry stakeholders, too:

Researchers from the national laboratories — including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pacific Northwest, Argonne, and Oak Ridge — are working with a range of partners, including Iowa State University, utilities and power operators, to study several potential scenarios for bringing together these interconnections.

Ouch! The coal-friendly grid study just doesn’t stack up against all that.

The new grid study is due to come out within the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned for a lot of people saying that it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

Meanwhile, if anybody knows what Daniel Simmons has been up to, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Image: via US DOE. 

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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