Agency to study harm from renewables on the grid

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Department of Energy is beginning a study of the impacts of renewable energy on the nation’s electrical grid.

The 60-day assessment, launched Friday and first reported by Bloomberg, is looking at how energy policies may be accelerating the decline of baseload coal and nuclear power plants, a prospect that may hamper grid reliability.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry wrote in a memo Friday to his chief of staff, Brian McCormack, that experts are concerned about the “diminishing diversity of our nation’s electric generation mix and what that could mean for baseload power and grid resilience,” according to the report.

The study is coming as the Trump administration unravels his predecessor’s climate change policies. President Trump has already rolled back former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which limits greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and will make an announcement this week about the United States’ future participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

DOE’s new effort may be a pretext for walking back incentives for renewable energy sources in favor of conventional generators, like those that burn coal.

Already, some states, like Arizona, are pushing back against policies like net metering, which benefits rooftop solar, and others, like North Dakota, are targeting the production tax credit (PTC), which benefits wind power installations.

A group of North Dakota state lawmakers wrote to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) last month, complaining about the detrimental impact of the PTC on the state’s coal sector.

“The PTC is wreaking havoc on the coal industry and its employees who have paid their fair share into the federal coffers, and now those dollars are being used to put them out of business,” they wrote. “There are NO TRADITIONAL electric generation sources being developed or even planned in North Dakota, due to the last administration’s efforts to regulate fossil fuels out of existence, and primarily because of the PTC.”

But the new study looks like it will retread some of the same ground as the last installment of DOE’s Quadrennial Energy Review (QER), a sweeping assessment of the United States’ energy system.

The most recent report, released in January shortly before Obama left office, spans almost 500 pages and examines ways to improve the grid as more intermittent renewable energy sources come online. It also issues recommendations for protecting energy infrastructure from attacks, both cyber and physical (Greenwire, Jan. 6).

“There have been multiple wide-ranging studies on the impacts of the changing resource mix on the U.S. electricity grid, including but not limited to the QER,” said Nathan Serota, a senior analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “The issue has been taken up in depth by regional operators as well as in various different ways by FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission].”

“It’s unclear what need there would be for additional study outside of what has already been produced,” he added.

Serota said the main reason for coal plant retirements is the collapsing price of natural gas, but he noted that competition from renewable energy was been a factor in some power markets.

As for grid reliability, he said, there hasn’t been much evidence that more intermittent wind and solar are having adverse impacts. “California has times of day with 60 percent of electricity coming from renewables,” Serota said.