Curtailing clean energy threatens innovation and national security

Returning from his first energy summit with fellow G7 nations, Energy Secretary Rick Perry issued a memo expressing concern about the United States’ diminishing use of antiquated “baseload” power plants, the centralized and often polluting system of power generation that had been used to deliver electricity to captive customers for more than a century.

Perry subsequently launched a study to review the levels of baseload power used in the nation’s electric grid. The premise of the study, which is expected to wrap up soon, is out of sync with what he heard at the summit. There, International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol urged the G7 nations to take a broader approach to energy security — one that reflected the changing nature of natural gas and electricity markets.  

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The consensus among our allies is that the rise of renewables requires policymakers to focus on systems integration and expanding renewable energy use beyond the power sector. While Perry came back lamenting the fate of old coal and nuclear power plants, other nations instead are focusing on bringing on-line more flexible power plants and energy storage systems together with smart appliances and electrical equipment that can make the electric grid more resilient and reliable.

 

Getting these energy choices right will impact national security, environmental quality and domestic jobs for decades to come. We urge Secretary Perry to put those priorities first and keep the U.S. both competitive and secure.

To his credit, Perry is right that over the past decade the nation’s power mix has changed dramatically. It has become more diverse with the addition of hundreds of utility-scale wind, solar and natural gas power plants. On top of that, more than 1.3 million households are now generating their own electricity with rooftop solar.  

As a result, older coal power plants are operating fewer hours each year. According to the Department of Energy, coal-fired power generation declined from 2 billion kilowatt hours in 2007 to 1.2 billion in 2016, a reduction of 40 percent. In fact, in 2016 the entire U.S. fleet of coal power plants operated at a capacity factor of just 48.3 percent. This means that most coal plants are not really “baseload” power plants any more. Instead, coal plants are working part-time and are taking more days off.

Nuclear power plants, on the other hand, run around the clock until they need to be refueled. This “baseload” characteristic is making nuclear an uncomfortable fit for some large electricity markets like California. With its diverse power supply of wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, biogas and small hydro power, California is now finding that nuclear power is getting in the way of integrating more renewable resources, including the expected doubling of rooftop solar systems over the next four years.   

In response to this baseload bottleneck, utility regulators are planning the orderly closure of California’s last two nuclear power plants in 2024 and 2025. This closure will enable newer plants to be used more efficiently together with flexible generation like hydroelectric power, quick-start natural gas power plants and through the development of energy storage projects like pumped hydro, compressed air and batteries.  

Elsewhere, in states like New York and Illinois, nuclear power plants are being protected from closure, not because they are baseload power plants, but because they operate with minimal greenhouse gas emissions. Baseload nuclear power plants do not make the grid more reliable and resilient or electric power more affordable.  Instead, policymakers argue that they are needed to mitigate climate change.

DOE research about how to make electric grids more resilient and wholesale energy markets more efficient would be a welcome endeavor. DOE has considerable expertise on electric power system design and grid operations at its national laboratories. In fact, DOE studies have already shown that much more renewable energy can reliably be added to the grid.  

If the federal government calls for policies that protect “baseload” resources from market forces, the results will be higher electric bills, slower domestic economic growth and, critically, a less secure electric power system.  

Making the electric power system more secure is an important topic for further study. Concerns about energy security go back at least to the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the 1977 New York City blackout. Thirty-five years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) commissioned a study that resulted in the publication of “Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security.” The book outlined important design principles for building more resilient energy systems.

Many insights, including the need for more modularity, diversity, redundancy and standardization in power systems have been elaborated since and are still relevant to a power industry that is undergoing accelerating change. 

The world is entering an era of energy abundance. The declining costs of renewable energy are unleashing new opportunities for growth and economic development across the globe. As Secretary Perry heard at the G7 summit, global greenhouse gas emissions have been flat for three years in a row, led by declines in the U.S. and China. There is now an opportunity for him and other energy policymakers to bend the curve further downward.

Of course, there are still important challenges associated with the integration of more renewable energy in the grid. California is turning these challenges into solutions. Using solar and wind power plants to improve the operational performance of the grid is one solution. Another is to stimulate investment in responsive demand and storage through new wholesale market price patterns. A third is to improve weather forecasting to better manage supply variability.  

We encourage Secretary Perry to lead the way to an energy transition to greater efficiency and resiliency. He should look toward California as a model. There, he’ll find support for creating an energy future that is more secure, more reliable and draws on one of America’s greatest resources — innovation.

Ed Smeloff leads Vote Solar's regulatory team to make the electric power system cleaner, smarter and more durable. Previously, Ed worked at SunPower Corp., Sharp Electronics, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Pace Law School Energy Project and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.


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