Myths and facts to know ahead of Rick Perry's study on the electrical grid and renewable energy

There are lots of reasons to be skeptical of the forthcoming study from the Department of Energy

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Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has ordered his department to produce a study on whether the ongoing shift toward renewable energy is affecting the reliability of the electrical grid. A number of experts, clean-energy advocates, and politicians on both sides of the aisle believe the study is intended to be biased in favor of the coal and nuclear industries, which have been struggling in recent years.

As journalists prepare to report on the study, which is expected to be released this month, there are some critical factors to consider:

  • The study leader worked for Koch-funded groups and has demonstrated bias against renewable energy;

  • wind and solar power are not major factors leading to the shuttering of coal and nuclear plants, according to energy experts and reports; and

  • numerous studies and grid experts have concluded that the electrical grid can incorporate increasing amounts of renewable energy and become more secure as a result, not less.

Perry orders grid study that's widely viewed as intended to bolster the coal industry

On April 14, Perry put out a memo calling for the Department of Energy (DOE) to conduct a 60-day study "to explore critical issues central to protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid." The study is intended to assess "how certain policies are affecting, and potentially putting at risk, energy security and reliability," according to the memo. Though Perry’s memo didn't mention wind, solar, or renewable energy by name, it was widely understood to be referring to policies that have supported the development of renewable energy.

Here's how Bloomberg explained it:

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is ordering a study of the U.S. electric grid, with an eye to examining whether policies that favor wind and solar energy are accelerating the retirement of coal and nuclear plants critical to ensuring steady, reliable power supplies.

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Perry highlights concerns about the “erosion” of resources providing “baseload power” -- consistent, reliable electricity generated even when the sun isn’t shining and the winds aren’t blowing.

[...]

Perry’s effort suggests that the administration may be looking for other ways to keep coal plants online.

As Jacques Leslie, a contributing opinion writer at the Los Angeles Times, put it in April, "Perry has already decided what the study should find: Its purpose is to buttress the Trump administration’s pro-fossil fuel policies."

Chris Tomlinson, a business columnist for the Houston Chronicle, recently described the forthcoming study as "clearly a fait accompli," writing that "Perry ordered his own review of the grid to reach conclusions that suit the administration." Tomlinson explained: "Perry is looking for an excuse to override competitive electricity markets and force utilities to buy power from coal and nuclear plants."

In late June, Perry gave his critics more ammunition with remarks he made at the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual conference, The Hill reported. While discussing the study, he said that "politically driven policies, driven primarily by a hostility to coal,” threaten “the reliability and the stability of the greatest electricity grid in the world." The Hill further reported that Perry told the conference he “doesn’t intend to give preference to renewable power, something he accused the Obama administration of doing.” Perry said, “I recognize the markets have had a role in the evolution of our energy mix. But no reasonable person can deny the thumb, or even the whole hand, if you will, has been put on the scale in favor of certain political outcomes.”

In addition to a long record of fossil-fuel boosterism, Perry has a history of denying that climate change is caused by humans burning fossil fuels, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus. Perry reiterated this denial during a June 19 appearance on CNBC's Squawk Box, blaming climate change primarily on "the ocean waters and this environment that we live in” instead of carbon dioxide emitted through human activity.

Study leader worked for Koch-funded groups and has demonstrated bias against renewable energy

Perry selected Travis Fisher to lead the study, a political appointee who serves as a senior advisor in the DOE's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. Fisher has a record of skepticism toward clean energy and favoritism toward fossil fuels, as documented by the Energy and Policy Institute, a nonprofit watchdog.

Before joining the Trump administration, Fisher worked as an economist at the Institute for Energy Research and the American Energy Alliance, groups that are run by a former Koch Industries lobbyist and that received $3 million in donations from Koch-funded organizations in 2015. The Institute for Energy Research also received $50,000 from coal company Peabody Energy in 2015 and has been funded by ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute.

While working at the Institute for Energy Research in 2015, Fisher wrote a report that argued wind and solar power threaten the reliability of the grid:

The single greatest emerging threat to reliable electricity in the U.S. does not come from natural disturbances or human attacks. Rather, the host of bad policies now coming from the federal government—and, unfortunately, from many state governments—is creating far greater and more predictable problems with grid reliability.

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Subsidies and mandates that force increased amounts of unreliable sources of electricity on the grid, such as wind and solar power, and undermine the normal operation of reliable power plants [...] create a much less reliable grid and increase the chances of a major blackout.

Despite issuing these warnings, Fisher's 2015 report did not cite any examples of clean energy policies leading to blackouts.

Fisher also wrote an op-ed in 2014 that argued wind and solar are "unreliable sources of power" and policies that promote them "undermine our electric system."

Fisher isn't the only person involved with the study who has a biased background. Perry's memo calling for the study was addressed to his chief of staff, Brian McCormack, who until recently worked for the Edison Electric Institute, the primary trade group for the electric utility industry and an opponent of net-metering policies that encourage rooftop solar power. While at EEI, McCormack played a key role in fighting policies that promote renewable energy.

Republican and Democratic politicians warn that the study is likely to be biased and lack credibility

  • Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, whose home state of Iowa has a robust wind power industry, sent a letter to Perry in May expressing serious doubts about the study. “I’m concerned that a hastily developed study, which appears to pre-determine that variable, renewable sources such as wind have undermined grid reliability, will not be viewed as credible, relevant or worthy of valuable taxpayer resources," he wrote. "In fact, at least one similar study has already been conducted by the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It's my understanding that study took two years to complete."

  • Seven Democratic members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee sent a letter to Perry in May saying, “This Study appears to be a thinly-disguised attempt to promote less economic electric generation technologies, such as coal and nuclear, at the expense of cost-competitive wind and solar power. … The Study, as you have framed it, appears to be intended to blame wind and solar power for the financial difficulties facing coal and nuclear electric generators and to suggest that renewable energy resources threaten the reliability of the grid."

Coal groups support the review; clean energy industry groups are skeptical

Industry trade groups appear to believe the study is likely to lean in favor of coal, as reflected in the coal lobby’s support for the inquiry and clean energy groups’ questions about how it's being conducted.  

  • A top coal lobbying group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, met twice with DOE officials to discuss the study "and came away hopeful about its results," The Hill reported in late June. “What DOE is doing is long overdue, and we’re very pleased with this right now,” said Paul Bailey, the group's president and CEO. “It looks like it will support the need for having a fleet of coal plants in the U.S.”

  • Luke Popovich, vice president for external relations at the National Association of Mining, wrote an op-ed for USA Today in May titled "Energy Department is right to study impact of U.S. power grid regulations." He praised Perry's call for the study, writing, "This is sensible policy."

  • Clean energy industry trade groups are worried that their perspectives will be left out of the study. In an April letter sent to Perry, three trade groups -- Advanced Energy Economy, the American Wind Energy Association, and the Solar Energy Industries Association -- pointed out that "solar and wind power, energy efficiency, energy storage, and advanced grid technologies ... have already been integrated smoothly into the electric power system in large and increasing amounts, as demonstrated in countless studies."

    The groups asked that the study be conducted through an inclusive, public process: "In light of the importance of this inquiry, we encourage you to follow standard practice and conduct the study in an open and transparent manner. When agencies prepare reports with policy recommendations that could affect entire industries and the millions of employees that work in them, such as the proposed one, it is customary for them to seek comments on a draft prior to the study being finalized."

  • The American Petroleum Institute, which represents producers of natural gas as well as oil, is also skeptical of the forthcoming study because it appears likely to promote coal and nuclear plants at the expense of gas. "Baseload is kind of a historical term. It's not really relevant to how electricity is produced today," Erica Bowman, chief economist at API, told the Houston Chronicle. "What you need is dispatchability ... and [coal and nuclear] are far slower when you compare them to a lot of the technology natural gas plants have."

    Writes the Chronicle, "That position places the oil and gas lobbying giants firmly on the side of the renewable energy industry, which has expressed concern Perry's study is nothing more than an attempt to prop up the coal sector.

Renewable energy is not to blame for driving coal and nuclear plants out of business, according to reports and experts

Perry called for the study to look into whether renewable energy threatens so-called "baseload" power plants. Wind and solar power are intermittent or variable, flowing into the grid when the wind blows and the sun shines, not 24/7. Perry expressed concern that government policies that encourage the development of renewable energy are leading to the closure of baseload plants that produce power around the clock, most of which are powered by coal and nuclear. Perry wrote in his memo that "federal subsidies that boost one form of energy at the expense of others ... create acute and chronic problems for maintaining adequate baseload generation," implying that subsidies for wind and solar are hurting the coal and nuclear industries.

But in fact, cheap natural gas is the main factor pushing coal and nuclear plants toward closure, not solar and wind, as many experts have noted.

  • A new report by Analysis Group, an economic consulting firm, reiterates that point. "Analysis Group finds it is market forces – primarily low-cost natural gas and flat demand for electricity – that are causing some coal and nuclear power plants to retire, and not state and federal policies supporting renewable energy development," says a press release from Advanced Energy Economy and the American Wind Energy Association. The two trade associations commissioned the report "in order to independently answer questions asked by Energy Secretary Rick Perry about the reliability and market rules of the U.S. electric power grid."

  • A recent report by the free-market think tank R Street refutes the idea that coal and nuclear are needed to maintain a reliable grid. “Concern over baseload retirements often masks an underlying preference for certain fuel types, namely coal and nuclear. Criticism of baseload retirements often ignores that nonbaseload resources can meet baseload demand reliably … and that new dependable resources have replaced retiring generators,” the report concludes.

  • Ben Fowke, president and CEO of large utility company Xcel Energy, told The Wall Street Journal in July that wind and solar are not responsible for the closure of coal and nuclear plants.

Utility and grid experts say the grid can incorporate more renewables and be more secure as a result

  • For a period on February 12 of this year, wind provided a record 52.1 percent of the electricity to the grid in the Southwest Power Pool's service region, which spans 14 states. Bruce Rew, vice president of operations for the Southwest Power Pool, said, "Ten years ago, we thought hitting even a 25 percent wind-penetration level would be extremely challenging, and any more than that would pose serious threats to reliability. Now we have the ability to reliably manage greater than 50 percent wind penetration. It's not even our ceiling."

  • Colette Honorable, an outgoing commissioner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said in late June that large amounts of renewable energy have been successfully integrated into regional grids around the U.S. and have “absolutely not” harmed grid reliability. “I have seen no problems with reliability,” she said during remarks at the the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual conference. “Bring on more renewables.”

  • Ed Smeloff -- managing director at the nonprofit Vote Solar, who previously worked at SunPower Corp., the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District -- wrote an op-ed for The Hill in June arguing that renewable energy and clean technology "can make the electric grid more resilient and reliable," not less. "DOE studies have already shown that much more renewable energy can reliably be added to the grid. If the federal government calls for policies that protect 'baseload' resources from market forces, the results will be higher electric bills, slower domestic economic growth and, critically, a less secure electric power system," he wrote.

  • Don Furman, director of the Fix the Grid Coalition and a former executive at the utility PacifiCorp, told Media Matters by email, “A reliable, carbon-free grid based on renewable energy is not only possible, it is economically feasible. It will take time for an orderly transition, and we will need policies to help people impacted by the move away from coal. But we absolutely can do it, starting now.”

  • According to Axios, Fowke, CEO of Xcel Energy, said on May 24 at the annual conference of the American Wind Energy Association, "I don't think 5 or 10 years ago I'd be comfortable telling you we could not sacrifice reliability when we're going to have 35% of our energy come from wind. I'm telling you, I'm very comfortable with that today."

  • David Hochschild, a commissioner with the California Energy Commission, the state’s primary energy policy and planning agency, and David Olsen, a member of the California Independent System Operator Board of Governors, which runs the state’s electric grid, argued in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that clean energy makes the grid more stable:

In California, which has installed more clean energy than any other state, there have been no threats to the reliability of the electric grid caused by renewables. Instead, the three biggest threats to our grid over the last 20 years came from market manipulation (Enron et al, during the 2001 energy crisis), a nuclear plant failure (San Onofre, 2012) and the largest natural gas leak in history (Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, 2015). Rather than create these emergencies, renewable energy was part of the solution and continued to operate reliably and prevented these events from becoming worse.

[…]

In August 2011, when a heat wave in Texas shut down 20 natural gas plants, it was wind power that kept the electric grid operator from having to black out areas of the state. In Iowa, wind power now provides 37 percent of the state’s electricity with no reduction in reliability.

Numerous studies, including ones from DOE, have found that the grid can incorporate more clean energy and improve reliability in the process

In 2016, renewable energy sources provided 15 percent of U.S. electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration. Nearly 6 percent came from wind energy and about 1 percent came from solar energy. Many studies have concluded that the grid can handle considerably higher percentages.

In fact, a leaked early draft of the very study Perry has commissioned reached the conclusion that the electrical grid is now more reliable than it was in the past even though it is handling more wind and solar power. According to Bloomberg, a draft written by career staff at the Department of Energy concluded, "The power system is more reliable today due to better planning, market discipline, and better operating rules and standards." But the draft report is currently being reviewed by department leaders and is expected to read somewhat differently by the time it is officially released. "Those statements as written are not in the current draft," a DOE spokesperson told Bloomberg.

Previous studies reached conclusions similar to those of DOE career staff:

  • The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is funded and overseen by the Department of Energy, found that the grid could handle 80 percent renewable power by 2050. The lab assessed the question of grid reliability in a four-volume 2012 study: "The central conclusion of the analysis is that renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the United States." This study, whose authors described it as "the most comprehensive analysis of high-penetration renewable electricity of the continental United States to date," is the one Grassley said had taken two years to complete.

  • Other studies from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory also found that the grid can accommodate much more renewable energy than it does now. The Solar Energy Industries Association summarized them in a recent briefing paper:

Multiple studies from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have shown that the existing grid can handle high penetrations of renewable energy without compromising reliability and performance. In their Western Wind and Solar Integration Study and Eastern Renewable Generation Integration Study NREL finds that both the existing western and eastern electric grids can accommodate upwards of 30% of solar and wind power without requiring extensive infrastructure investments.
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Phase three of the [western grid] study demonstrated that reliability of the western grid can be maintained at high renewable penetration rates in the face of large system disturbance (such as the loss of a fossil plant).
  • A 2016 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, Boulder, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that “widespread distribution of renewables would help address the intermittency problem by covering a wider swath of land and taking advantage of weather conditions over a larger area,” as Climate Nexus explained.

  • The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a not-for-profit regulatory authority, released a report last month that found the U.S. power grid has been successfully incorporating renewable energy. Midwest Energy News summarized the report: "NERC’s own findings suggest that — for now, at least — the nation’s power system has been largely successful in adapting to new technologies, shifting policies and fickle market forces."

  • Studies by grid operators have found that reliability can be maintained with higher proportions of renewables. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, "The authorities responsible for operating the nation’s power grid — regional transmission organizations and independent system operators — have all published or participated in studies evaluating how increased renewable energy supplies would affect the electricity system. These studies have overwhelmingly shown that higher levels of renewable energy can be achieved regionally without affecting the reliability of electricity supplies."

    The Solar Energy Industries Association summarized some of these studies:

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which manages the largest amount of solar resources in the country, finds that the state will have no issues in maintaining reliability in hitting its 33% renewables target by 2020. PJM, which operates much of the eastern grid in the U.S., found in a 2014 study that they would not encounter reliability issues with 30% of their energy coming from solar and wind.
In a separate study, CAISO found that solar photovoltaic power plants, when equipped with commercially available inverter technology, can offer “electric reliability services similar, or in some cases superior to, conventional power plants." Likewise, Concentrating Solar Power plants (CSP), which produce electricity by using the sun to heat boilers and push turbines, are easily paired with thermal energy storage and provide a host of grid benefits that allow them to function similar to any fossil fuel plant.
  • Studies by independent groups have also found that much more renewable energy can be accommodated on the grid. A new study by The Brattle Group, an economic consulting firm, found that “no single technology or fuel type is needed to keep the lights on” around the clock. According to a press release from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which commissioned the study, "The nation’s electricity grid operators are increasingly turning to more flexible resources and low-cost renewable energy options like wind and solar, rendering outdated the notion that 'baseload' generating plants are required to reliably power America’s homes and businesses."

    The Brattle study also reviewed "a number of other studies of grid operations and planning across the country," the Natural Resources Defense Council noted. "These studies uniformly highlight the increasing value of system flexibility. For example, an analysis of the California electricity system from Astrape Consulting found that as flexibility increases, reliability improves and both production costs and emissions decrease. An analysis of New Mexico grid operations reached a similar conclusion, finding that future blackouts are more likely to be driven by a lack of system operational flexibility."

    An earlier study by The Brattle Group, published in 2015, presented case studies on Colorado and Texas and determined that "integrating variable renewable energy at penetration levels of 10-20% on average and at times above 50% — i.e., high relative to the current levels in most of the United States — is possible. … While infrastructure changes will likely be necessary in the longer term, the shorter-term integration challenges in many cases can be addressed with modest operational changes." The study was commissioned by the Advanced Energy Economy Institute, the educational affiliate of the trade group Advanced Energy Economy.

    A 2014 study by the International Energy Agency found, in the words of the Solar Energy Industries Association, that "most countries can achieve high grid reliability at renewable penetration rates of 25 – 40%."

Climate Nexus has rounded up additional studies with similar findings.

Grid operators have the technology and know-how to improve reliability while incorporating more renewables

Experts point to many strategies and technologies that can be used to handle an increasing proportion of clean energy on the grid.

The Washington Post noted a couple of them:

Perry’s memo did not mention energy storage, which as it proliferates, is expected to help integrate more renewable energy onto the grid. For instance, batteries could store some of the energy generated by large solar arrays during the day, deploying that energy at night, effectively making solar into something a lot more like a "baseload" power source.

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More and more, electricity markets are purchasing the lack of electricity use as a commodity, as “demand response” options, in which companies lower their energy use at times of peak demand to reduce burdens on the grid, proliferate.

Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, listed more approaches grid operators could use in a blog post: "Coordination of demand response, electric vehicle charging, and simple upgrades such as thermostats and efficient lighting reduce the stress on the grid, directly and immediately improving reliability. The utility industry has great potential to improve this sort of interaction with consumers, as well as the game-changing possibilities of battery energy storage."

The nonprofit group Climate Nexus outlined a number of additional strategies:

Grid operators have an array of tools to deal with variability. Among these tools are accurate weather forecasting, sophisticated controls for renewable generators, flexible balancing of other resources like natural gas, utility-scale energy storage, and transmission lines to move power to areas of high demand. Changes in the wholesale market that allow for better scheduling of power plants and sharing of reserve margins across wide geographical areas could also reduce curtailment.

Climate Nexus also noted, "The challenges renewables pose to the national power grid are minor compared to the larger systemic problems of aging infrastructure, susceptibility to weather-related outages and an overreliance on fossil fuels."

And the group pointed out that incorporating more renewable energy into the U.S. electrical system provides numerous other benefits as well, including human health protections, job growth, electricity cost savings, and a more stable climate.

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