Renewable Energy Industry Anxiously Watching Rick Perry

An Energy Department study of the grid is seen as a backdoor attack on clean energy.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry testifies before a House Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday.
Chet Susslin
June 20, 2017, 8 p.m.

What sounds like a bureaucratic, standard review of the electric grid has taken on a political life of its own as part of the controversy over whether the Trump administration will cut government support for renewable energy.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has ordered his department to study the “long-term reliability of the electric grid,” focusing on whether federal regulations and subsidies for renewables have affected baseload power.

Appearing before a House panel Tuesday, Perry said the review would be out by the end of the month and had taken on particular importance amid skyrocketing temperatures in the West. The high in Phoenix hit 119 degrees Tuesday afternoon—so hot that some commercial airplanes were grounded.

“We may get a test this summer from the standpoint of our reliability. I hope that’s not the case; I hope we don’t see brownouts,” Perry said at a House Appropriations Committee hearing. The department, he said, was “looking at how we make America’s energy reliable, affordable, and sustainable. We know that requires a baseload capability that can run 24-7.”

The study is meant to focus on baseload plants, or the coal, gas, and nuclear facilities that provide around-the-clock power. The study, Perry said, would also focus on cybersecurity, ensuring that the grid was safe from hacks like the one seen in Ukraine in 2015.

And while Perry said it would incorporate a review of the role of renewables and other emerging technologies, the study has been criticized as a backdoor way for the Energy Department to justify rolling back its support for renewable energy. The very premise of the study—whether new energy sources such as wind and solar are harming the ability of the grid to supply necessary power—essentially assumes that non-coal sources are unreliable.

A memo announcing the grid study by Perry even noted “regulatory burdens introduced by the previous administration” that had “destroyed jobs and economic growth, and … threaten to undercut the performance of the grid well into the future.”

Perry added that the review should explore “the extent to which continued regulatory burdens, as well as mandates and tax and subsidy policies, are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants.”

Renewable backers are pushing back ahead of the Energy Department’s release; the business groups Advanced Energy Economy and the American Wind Energy Association released a study Tuesday that they said would undercut Perry’s assumptions. The report, authored by Analysis Group, found “no evidence” that introducing renewables to the energy mix threatened reliability, instead focusing on the role of natural gas in challenging coal power.

The report also said that advanced energy offers reliability benefits by making the energy grid more diverse, and has made the idea of “baseload power” outdated because the growth in renewable and natural-gas plants makes it easier to ramp up and meet higher demand as needed.

“The electricity system in the United States is stronger than it’s ever been. Thanks to innovation and smart policy, we have a more diverse fuel mix, a more reliable grid, and lower electricity costs,” said AEE CEO Graham Richard. “As DOE finalizes its report on reliability, we hope the department will incorporate these key findings, which reflect the true state of the grid.”

That’s not to say that the grid study is being dismissed; even Democrat Nita Lowey, the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, said it was important to upgrade both the reliability and security of the grid, calling it “arguably most complex and critical infrastructure in our nation.”

But it comes as the Trump administration has increasingly tried to prop up the ailing coal industry, rolling back federal regulations and threatening to cut clean-energy research.

The Energy Department’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget would cut 70 percent from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program for advanced energy and make other research cuts focused on renewables.

But any potential challenge to renewables may be an uphill battle in Congress. Subcommittee ranking member Marcy Kaptur said the cuts to the research labs that support renewable energy were a “big worry.” At Tuesday’s budget hearing, members seemed to give Perry a pass, calling the proposal “Mulvaney’s budget” (in reference to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney), echoing the common stance among appropriators this year that the White House budget is dead on arrival.

Even Republicans have backed renewable energy; rural states like Iowa have ramped up their wind capacity (and while Perry was governor, Texas became the nation’s largest wind-power state). Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa may have even sent Perry the greatest warning about his grid study; in a letter last month, Grassley warned 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.”

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