Thursday, August 24, 2017

Dept. of Energy report: More use of renewables could threaten reliability of power grid

The Department of Energy released a controversial study Aug. 23 that says too much electricity from renewable energy and natural gas could make the U.S. power grid less reliable in the future. "The 187-page study, commissioned by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April, recommends that federal regulators make changes to wholesale electricity markets that could potentially benefit existing coal and nuclear plants. Revenues for many of these facilities have slumped in recent years as electricity prices have declined, mostly because of cheap natural gas, the study said, but also as a result of low electricity demand growth and the rise of wind and solar power," Brad Plumer reports for The New York Times.

The study says the grid is fine right now because gas and hydropower can easily shore up gaps caused by the intermittent nature of wind and solar, but that could be threatened if more coal and nuclear plants shut down because they can produce electricity around the clock. The study is open to public comment.

Critics of the study say it's an effort by the Trump administration to help the ailing coal industry. Sierra Club officer Mark Kresowik told NPR's Jeff Brady that "coal and nuclear interests are making a last-ditch attempt to try and preserve their market share, that is being taken up by fast-growing, clean, reliable, affordable resources like wind and solar." And Richard Graham, chief executive of clean energy company coalition Advanced Energy Economy, told Plumer that diversifying America's energy sources makes the power grid "more flexible, reliable, and resilient."

Whether or not the study is biased, it's still a boon for the coal and nuclear industries. Utilities buy electricity from energy producers in what's known as a "power purchase agreement." The gas boom and subsidized wind power have driven down the prices coal and nuclear plants can get from utilities. Some believe the study is the administration's way of  "laying the groundwork to justify subsidies for coal and nuclear power plants," Brady reports. Neil Chatterjee, the new head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said coal plants should be "properly compensated to recognize the value they provide," Plumer reports. Nuclear power plants in some states have already received subsidies.

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