The Intertubes were buzzing all yesterday afternoon with rumors that the Energy Department’s long-awaited and highly controversial new grid study will finally see the light of day, but while everybody was looking over in that direction, yesterday morning Energy Secretary Rick Perry also released a new wind power study that basically pulls the rug out from under the whole thing.
Late update: the new grid study is heeere … oddly, dumped late at night with no press release, hmmmm … but it does come with a cover letter from Secretary Perry that emphasizes two key points: the study is positioned as a “staff report” rather than a comprehensive study involving other experts and stakeholders, and it affirms former President Obama’s “all of the above” energy security strategy. #thanksobama!
New Grid Study Was Supposed To Support Coal
For those of you new to the topic, the grid study ruckus erupted last April when Perry ordered the Energy Department to issue a resiliency report that seemed predetermined to support the US coal industry. In a leaked memo describing the assignment, Perry already appeared inclined to conclude that the role of coal in baseload power generation (along with nuclear and hydro) could not be replaced by renewables without undermining national security.
The memo was roundly criticized by pretty much everyone — except, of course, the coal industry.
Perry’s own agency actually undercut the pro-coal messaging persistently after the memo leaked. In May, for example, the Energy Department released an update for one of its own ongoing grid studies, which made a strong case for integrating more renewables.
Perry also trolled Trump all during Made in America Week in June, with a torrent of press releases and social media highlighting the nation’s wind industry (which was left out of the Made in America celebrations by the Trump Administration).
Even the natural gas industry pushed back against the new grid study. Earlier this summer the American Petroleum Institute (which also represents gas stakeholders) produced a 50-state analysis aiming to show that the coal-centric baseload power generation model is out of date, and that the more nimble, flexible grid of the future will be better served by gas than coal.
Hey Natural Gas, Don’t Look Back … Wind Power Might Be Gaining On You
That brings us to natural gas. The US shale drilling (aka fracking) boom is widely credited with enabling natural gas to push coal out of the power generation market. That’s thanks in large part to the efforts of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in his former iteration as Exxon CEO.
However, the triumph of natural gas may be short lived, and the new Energy Department wind power report paints an alarming picture.
Well, alarming if you just sunk all your money into gas.
The red flags go up right from the beginning of a press release announcing the new report. It’s headlined “New Lab Report: How to Cut the Cost of Wind Energy in Half,” and the news for natural gas is all downhill from there.
Produced by the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the report notes that wind is already inching into a competitive position in some areas of the US:
Newly-built wind plants using production tax credits are already cost-competitive with new natural gas plants in some parts of the U.S., especially in the “wind belt” that runs from Texas to North Dakota.
The federal subsidy for wind energy is set to expire in 2019, which should be good news for natural gas. However, natural gas fans should not start cheering just yet. NREL brings the hammer down:
By leveraging high-performance computing and accelerating energy science R&D efforts for the wind plant of the future, wind energy costs could be cut in half by 2030 or sooner, bringing it below the projected fuel cost for natural gas.
Keep in mind that the US gas industry has been lobbying for more exports, which could also help push gas costs up here in the US while wind continues to trend down.
Low natural gas prices have also been coasting on a free ride because the industry has not been held fully responsible for mitigating its environmental impacts. Aside from the contribution of natural gas drilling to climate change, the local impacts include air pollution, water pollution and even earthquake hazards.
Natural gas stakeholders most likely won’t be called to account any time soon by the Trump administration, but if and when the gas industry has to manage its operations more closely, that will also increase costs — and give another edge to wind power and other renewables.
Wind Power: It’s All About The Science
NREL produced the new analysis under the Energy Department’s “Atmosphere to Electrons” initiative, which is a next-generation approach to lowering the cost of wind power.
Instead of focusing narrowly on improving the efficiency of individual wind turbines, A2e treats wind farms as fully integrated units. The idea is to create a holistic analysis of how wind turbines affect each other and interact with the atmosphere, in order to maximize the efficiency of entire wind farms.
If that sounds like a supercomputer is in order, run right out and buy yourself a cigar:
… According to NREL, the wind plant of the future will use a collection of technologies that allow wind power plants and the turbines within them to not only respond to the atmosphere as an efficient, integrated system, but also to control the airflow within the plant to maximize power production. This approach is made possible by recent advances in supercomputing technology, which turns large sets of atmospheric and wind turbine operation data into a high-fidelity model.
Group Hug For US Taxpayers, Bronx Cheer For New Grid Study
Rick Perry’s Energy Department is careful to point out that private industry can’t foot the bill for new supercomputers, so it’s up to us taxpayers to support “government-driven scientific insights” leading to more efficient wind farms.
Thanks for the shoutout, now let’s have that group hug.
As for what the wind farm of the future will look like, here’s where the Bronx cheer comes in, and it seems to be aimed at that new grid study.
Topping NREL’s forecast for the wind farms of the future is the emergence of next-generation modeling and sensing equipment that can provide more accurate estimates of power production.
That will have the effect of “reducing uncertainty and increasing predictability of electricity production.”
Oh, so the grid of the future might not need baseload coal power plants after all. Interesting…
NREL is also looking forward to integrated wind farm designs that enable pinpoint control over turbines in real time. Aside from the potential for expanding the lifespan of the turbines, the integrated approach will “increase reliability” — wait, did they just ding the new grid study again?
Yes, they did. Here’s another item on the future wind farm wish list (emphasis added):
Controllable, dispatchable, and predictable grid support services for grid resilience and stability, including precise forecasting of wind energy production for short-term grid operation and planning.
The wind power report doesn’t totally neglect individual turbines. According to NREL, the wind farm of the future will also sport turbines with larger rotors and taller towers among other improvements.
In that vein, the A2e mission of focusing on “physics-based modeling, analysis and performance capabilities” is aimed at improving individual turbines as well as improving run-of-the-farm performance.
One recent example is A2e’s analysis of wear and tear on wind turbine blades, which can affect performance. NREL’s modeling is expected to lead to more accurate wind energy generation modeling and more durable turbine blade designs.
So, What About That New Grid Study?
If you’re reading this on August 24, you’re two steps ahead. As of this writing (August 23), the study has not yet been released.
According to Bloomberg, the new grid study does not exactly break out the pom-poms for coal. In July they got hold of a leaked draft, and now they have a “document” that seems to provide a rundown of the final version.
The final version apparently amounts to an argument for federal subsidies to keep coal (and nuclear) power plants in operation:
The report commissioned by Energy Secretary Rick Perry will recommend that regulators “improve” wholesale electricity markets to ensure the U.S. has enough supply to keep the lights on during extreme events, the document shows.
Both coal and nuclear have benefited from taxpayer largess for generations, but it’s not clear how well the argument for additional taxpayer support will go over with the people who decide such matters, namely, the members of the US Congress.
The current Congress is controlled by a majority of Republican representatives — the same people who have focused like a laser on cutting taxes for the past 30 years.
As for Secretary Perry, he’s been going far (well, not very far in some regards) out of his way to pacify President Trump this summer, even so far as to pen op-eds in support of Trump policies that are far out of the range of his agency’s mission.
It’s possible Perry has been pointing at squirrels to distract Trump from the real meat of the new grid study, which indicates that coal has a steep hill — and an expensive one — to climb if it’s going to compete for business in the sparkling green grid of the future:
The study details how cheap natural gas, government regulations, weak power demand and increasing volumes of solar and wind power are challenging the economics of coal and nuclear plants.
As more evidence that Perry has the knives out for coal, consider that earlier this week the Energy Department nixed a coal industry request to issue an emergency order protecting coal power plants.
The decision was affirmed by the White House, which according to the Associated Press broke a verbal promise that Trump made to at least one coal industry executive just last month.
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Image: via National Renewable Energy Laboratory.