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
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
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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