US Renewable Energy Hits The Ground Running After FERC Debacle

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Whelp, that was fast. Just a few weeks ago, Energy Secretary Rick Perry went begging hat in hand to save the nation’s dwindling fleet of coal power plants. On Monday, federal regulators officially gave the bum’s rush to that idea, and Perry didn’t let any grass grow under his feet. Within hours of their decision, Perry’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory announced a major new research initiative laying the groundwork for the all-electric economy of the future.

While coal stakeholders were still reeling from that double whammy, yesterday NREL introduced a companion report aimed at smoothing the way for more variable renewable energy — primarily wind and solar power — in the national grid.

Et Tu, Trump? US Energy Department Banks On Renewable Energy

So much for President “we’re going to bring the coal industry back 100%” Trump.

In case there’s any doubt that NREL’s new research initiative is aimed at leaving coal behind in the dust, well, first of all the initiative is a product of the nation’s premier renewable energy research institution.

Second of all, see first of all. NREL was established on the heels of the 1970s oil crisis. The lab celebrated its 40th anniversary all throughout 2017 with the enthusiastic backing of Energy Secretary Perry, who is evidently determined to continue supporting the NREL mission.

Here’s the 40th anniversary message from NREL:

For 40 years, NREL has expanded American prosperity and security through world-class research. The laboratory’s work stimulates the U.S. economy, inspires ingenuity, and preserves our nation’s energy security. Today, the laboratory is poised to lead America into the future—for the next 40 years and beyond.

That strong message on renewable energy is on the Department of Energy website as of this writing, and it’s not an anomaly. When President “we will put our miners back to work” Trump appointed Perry to his post, he set a rabid wind energy fan loose upon the agency.

So, it’s no surprise the Energy Department has been running full steam ahead on renewable energy initiatives, backed up by a steady drumbeat of supportive public statements from Perry.

That’s a jarring contrast with some of Perry’s public statements in support of the Trump position on climate change, but there’s a simple explanation. Perry is the one who talks up NREL and the other national laboratories and issues a slew of glowing reports and statements about the greatness of wind and solar power (especially wind power). His evil twin is the one tasked with appeasing an unpredictable and somewhat thin-skinned boss — not an easy assignment, considering the stampede of Trump officials leaving this year.

Paving The Way For An All-Electric Future

Where were we? Oh right, that new electrification study from NREL. This comes under the title, “Electrification Futures Study Series,” so it’s going to be a long, dry slog. However, it sets an important foundational table for what looks to be a soup-to-nuts transformation of the nation’s grid.

The idea is to model how the grid will act when electricity becomes the major force in all areas of the economy. That generally involves pushing natural gas aside in residential and commercial buildings, giving coal and diesel the heave-ho in the industrial sector, and reducing the role of conventional diesel, gasoline and jet fuel in transportation.

The initiative will be a two-year effort by NREL in collaboration with top research institutions: the Electric Power Research Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Another partner in the collaboration is a consulting firm called Evolved Energy Research. They’re new to the CleanTechnica radar so let’s take a closer look:

Our mission is to give decision makers the analytical tools and insights needed to manage energy system transformation and prevent damaging climate change.

Oh. Those guys.

Another unfamiliar name is Northern Arizona University. Not quite sure where they fit in, but it could have something to do with their focus on big data and informatics, whatever that is.

The researchers have their work cut out for them if they’re going to wrap up in two years. They have to come up with an answer for this question:

What end-use electric technologies are available for the highest energy-consuming services today, and how might the technologies advance over time?

And this one:

How might widespread electrification impact national and regional electricity demand and consumption patterns?

How would the U.S. electricity system need to transform to meet changes in demand from an electrified economy?

And these two:

What role might demand-side flexibility play to support reliable operations of a clean electricity grid?
What are potential costs, benefits, and impacts of mass electrification?

If you want more details, check out the first report in the study dealing with heat pumps and electric vehicles.

If all goes well, the study will provide policymakers and other stakeholders with tools to help plan for the costs and fuel types needed to ensure grid reliability, economic development and national security.

Et Tu, Scott Pruitt?

That’s all kind of energy neutral in terms of power generation, and that’s where the second NREL announcement comes in. On Tuesday, NREL let loose with a set of recommendations for modeling wind and solar grid penetration.

And, this is where things get interesting. The recommendations grew out of another collaboration, between NREL and the Electric Power Research Institute, the US Energy Information Administration, and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Wait — what? If you know anything about EPA chief Scott Pruitt, that’s like inviting a python to your hamster party. Nevertheless, it seems that EPA was fully on board with the renewable energy exercise. By comparing and contrasting their own modeling methodologies, the collaborators came up with a “more robust” representation for wind and solar in the energy grid of the future.

Next steps include long-term modeling that encompasses the interaction of renewables and energy storage, so stay tuned for that.

No Future For Coal

For those of you new to the topic, Monday’s death blow for coal was dealt by FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The five-member commission is stacked with four Trump appointees, but on Monday FERC unanimously ruled against an Energy Department rate proposal personally advanced by Perry. The proposal was designed to keep older coal and nuclear power plants running, even if less expensive alternatives are available.

The Perry proposal was pretty much coal’s last lifeline for power generation in the US, so there’s that.

Considering Perry’s habit of cheerleading for renewables, he actually seemed pretty relieved at the FERC decision.

Here he is cited by our friends over at The Hill:

“As intended, my proposal initiated a national debate on the resiliency of our electric system…What is not debatable is that a diverse fuel supply, especially with on-site fuel capability, plays an essential role in providing Americans with reliable, resilient and affordable electricity, particularly in times of weather-related stress like we are seeing now…”

Hmmm…diverse fuel supply…on-site fuel capability…that sounds an awful lot like wind and solar plus storage.

Whatever. Going by the evil twin theory, it seems that Perry soldiered through marching orders from the White House, threw a hot potato into the lap of four other Trump appointees and made a tactical retreat, all in hopes of keeping his job.

If Perry’s job this year is anything like last year, look for more progress on renewable energy from the Trump administration, and more woes for US coal miners and their communities.

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Image (screenshot): via NREL.

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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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