Renewable energy stakeholders went crazy last April when Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered a new grid reliability study that seemed front-loaded in favor of bringing life back to the ailing US coal industry. Not to worry, at least so far. Bloomberg is reporting that in a leaked draft of the new study, renewables don’t fare so badly after all.
Rick Perry <3 Renewables
To be clear, it was important for renewable energy stakeholders to push back strongly against indications that the new grid study would have a pre-set bias favoring the coal industry. However, there were some pretty good hints early on that the coal industry should not pin its hopes on the new study.
For one thing, ever since the beginning of his tenure as Energy Secretary, Perry has been a relentlessly aggressive cheerleader for his agency’s renewable energy programs and its professional staff.
The frantic outpouring of press releases, speeches, and social media touting the Energy Department’s wind and solar initiatives has been noticeable, considering President* Trump’s pro-coal rhetoric.
A temporary slowdown did occur last month during the Trump Administration’s “Energy Week” publicity event, when the focus turned to nuclear energy and so-called clean coal. However, now that the week’s PR activities are over, the Energy Department has been making up for lost time on renewables.
It’s also worth noting that despite the occasional nod to the Trump Administration party line and semi-regular brain farts that send the Intertubes into fits of hysterical laughter, Perry is keeping the Energy Department focused on climate action.
In other words, when Perry shouts “squirrel!” it’s probably a good idea to dip into the agency’s website — including EERE and the national laboratory network — to see what’s really going on.
The Energy Department home page, for example, got a complete re-design practically on the day that Trump announced he was pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The new layout visually steers visitors to a “Science & Innovation” link, where the dropdown menu includes links for renewables, energy efficiency, and climate change — and that’s “climate change” without mincing words, btw.
Another clue regarding the new grid study is Perry’s dismissive treatment of the Trump-appointed fossil industry lobbyist Daniel Simmons who is now heading up EERE, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Simmons never did get an official welcoming statement from Perry (if you can find one, drop us a note in the comment thread), and the office and its associates in the US national laboratory network seem to be humming along quite nicely.
In addition, consider that Perry gained a seat on the National Security Council thanks to a reshuffle orchestrated by Trump’s National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. In that capacity, he rubs elbows with Defense Secretary and noted climate hawk James Mattis.
Then there’s Perry’s record on renewables as the longest-serving governor in Texas history. His legacy on women’s rights in that state is abysmal, but his tenure occurred in the midst of a wind energy boom thanks in large part to a massive new transmission project.
So, what gives? Maybe Perry is gearing up for another run at the White House, building up support from STEM and renewable energy stakeholders to counterbalance his failure on women’s issues as Texas Governor.
If you have any thoughts on that, drop us a note in the comment thread.
Grid Study? We Don’t Need No Stinking Grid Study!
Now for that new grid study. Bloomberg first reported back in April that Perry ordered a new grid reliability through a memo (leaked, natch!) that sent a chill through the spine of renewable energy fans. Here’s a snippet:
“We are blessed as a nation to have an abundance of domestic energy resources, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric, all of which provide affordable baseload power and contribute to a stable, reliable and resilient grid…”
Purposefully or not, though, Perry has been setting up the coal-friendly point of view for a fall.
For one thing, the Energy Department already has a comprehensive, ongoing Grid Modernization Study in hand. On top of its regular stream of good news about renewables, on May 31 the agency pumped out a new update for that study, and the update made a pitch for including more renewables in the nation’s grid.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at a July 14 Bloomberg report on a — leaked, natch! — draft of the new grid study. Here’s the lede:
“Wind and solar power don’t pose a significant threat to the reliability of the U.S. power grid, Energy Department staff members said in a draft report, contradicting statements by their leader Rick Perry.”
And it all goes downhill for coal from there:
“The power system is more reliable today due to better planning, market discipline, and better operating rules and standards,” according to a July draft of the study obtained by Bloomberg.
The draft report also pins the main blame for coal’s demise where it belongs — on natural gas, not renewables:
“Costly environmental regulations and subsidized renewable generation have exacerbated base-load power plant retirements,” the draft says. “However, those factors played minor roles compared to the long-standing drop in electricity demand relative to previous expectation and years of low electric prices driven by high natural gas availability.”
But Wait, There’s More
Bloomberg has been mighty industrious of late. It also obtained a brief Energy Department outline for the grid study from last May, indicating that both the coal and nuclear fleets are aging and under stress from weak electricity demand and high maintenance costs, in addition to increased competition from other fuels.
Bloomberg cautions that the new draft it obtained could still be tweaked to downplay renewables in favor of coal, but that would be a surprise.
While it appears that the Trump Administration favored newly hired Energy Department chief of staff and solar net metering foe Brian McCormack to shepherd the study through, Perry had other ideas. According to Bloomberg, Perry assigned the role to Texas-based energy efficiency advocate Alison Silverstein.
Another key factor is the natural gas industry, which has a powerful advocate in the form of Secretary of State and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson.
As the EV market takes hold, Exxon and other natural gas stakeholders have a keen interest in pushing coal, nuclear energy, and the whole conventional “baseload” approach to grid reliability out the window. The American Petroleum Institute laid out its case in a new report last month, which aimed at demonstrating that natural gas is a better fit for the modern grid of the future.
In any case, that cat’s out of the bag now that details of the draft report have seeped into the news. Any tweaks tilting the balance of favor towards coal are going to be met with howls of protest from all quarters, and once again President Trump will succeed in doing nothing more than pacifying his loyal base and benefiting his own public image (such as it is) at the expense of national interests.
Image (screenshot) via US Department of Energy
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