Official on grid study: ‘We haven’t prejudged anything’

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A top Department of Energy official today defended a contentious study on energy subsidies and baseload power as collaborative and open-minded.

“We haven’t prejudged anything; it’s the outside groups that are prejudging it,” the official said. “It’s going to be interesting to me to see how they respond to it, especially when it turns out to be a well-researched and balanced study.”

DOE has faced criticism from top Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley of wind-rich Iowa and clean energy groups after a memo leaked in early April revealing Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s request for a review of “regulatory burden,” “mandates and tax and subsidy policies” and their effect on the premature closure of baseload plants.

The department has vowed to make the report public after it wraps up on June 26. The effort is currently being led by Travis Fisher, a Trump administration political appointee who formerly worked with the Institute for Energy Research, and grid operators have since stepped up to provide critical market metrics to the agency’s ongoing research (Energywire, May 23).

The official — who asked for anonymity so they could speak freely — acknowledged that terms used in Perry’s memo, including “baseload,” had a “dog whistle” effect, but insisted that the effort is based on facts and is being conducted mainly by career staffers with no bias.

“All of a sudden, people start freaking out, but as far as our process goes, we’re still in the finding stage and what policies we’re going to recommend,” the official said.

Since Perry signed off on DOE Chief of Staff Brian McCormack’s study plan on April 26, DOE has met with grid operators, officials from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, solar and wind groups, and other stakeholders, the official said. Some of those meetings included sit-downs with Perry, Fisher, DOE career staffers and Gerry Cauley, head of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), the official said.

And two weeks ago, Fisher, McCormack and DOE career staff met with Tom Kiernan, head of the American Wind Energy Association, and Abigail Ross Hopper, the head of the Solar Energy Industries Association, the official said. “They came with slides on how their sources play well on the grid,” the official said. “It was a really good dialogue in those meetings.”

That sentiment was echoed in a statement from the solar industry group. Hopper noted that SEIA provided studies earlier this month showing how the U.S. grid can handle high penetrations of renewable energy to benefit ratepayers and system operators.

“We have had really good dialogue along these lines with Energy Department officials who seem open to learning more about the many ways solar and other renewables have made our grid more reliable and resilient,” Hopper said. “We remain hopeful DOE will take all of this research, and these conversations, into consideration, prior to the report being finalized.”

The official said DOE staffers are still in the process of pulling analytics from seven national labs; various offices that work on nuclear power, renewable energy and electricity; and the Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis.

Also involved are authors of the DOE’s 2003 study of a blackout that left large swaths of the grid in darkness.

“Our goal is keeping it internal and only talking to the offices and labs,” the official said. “We’re trying to keep it focused, on schedule, and we’re trying to keep the special-interest spin out of the room.”

When asked about fears that the study could be used to undermine tax incentives for wind and solar generators, the official suggested the report would focus more on DOE policies and “the obvious choice” of making recommendations to agencies like FERC as opposed to statutory changes.

“When talking about the way markets are structured and might need to change in the future; all of that action would happen at FERC,” said the source, “but it’s too soon to say.”