Coal, nuclear vie for supremacy in key Energy Department study

Coal, nuclear vie for supremacy in key Energy Department study
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

The Department of Energy (DOE) is working to finalize a report that the power sector and lawmakers say could set a new course for the Trump administration’s policy approach.

The report, launched in April by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is aimed at identifying government regulations and policies that the agency says improperly favor renewable energy over traditional fuels like coal and nuclear. 

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The study, which is expected to come out next month, could provide a firmer policy basis for President Trump’s campaign positions on energy policy. 

Trump has so far issued executive orders aimed at promoting fossil fuels, but debates over energy policy are destined to be components of bigger fights such as tax reform or infrastructure.

Renewable energy industry lobbyists and allies in both parties have peppered the DOE with complaints about the study, though their comments also serve to promote their favored fuel sources, indicating the stakes of the report. 

At an Energy Information Administration (EIA) event this week, Perry said the study was designed to address “politically driven policies, driven primarily by a hostility to coal” that he said “threaten the reliability and the stability of the greatest electricity grid in the world.”

“It’s not reasonable to rely exclusively on fossil fuels; it’s not feasible to rely exclusively on renewables,” he said.

“We are working to find the right balance so we have a diverse supply of energy that is clean and affordable and a grid that is safe and reliable.”

That approach has set off alarm bells among renewable energy groups. They say the DOE’s study is the Trump administration’s latest move to take aim at renewable energy industries.

In a May letter to Perry, four renewable energy groups said the study was based on a “faulty premise … that renewable generation is responsible for the retirement of coal and nuclear generation resources, and that the loss of those resources will lead to declining reliability of the grid.”

Matt Stansberry, whose group, Advanced Energy Economy, signed the letter, said the organizations are pushing for a more public examination of the energy sector and that the groups are concerned the study will focus more on research biased against renewables. 

“I think, we only have the content of the document and the statements to go off of,” he said of Perry’s public statements about the scope of the report.

“We saw some misunderstandings about renewables in there, and that’s concerning, and we needed to make sure those are addressed, and that’s what we tried to do.”

Groups for other energy sources have used the study as a chance to tout their fuel sources. 

The American Petroleum Institute, for instance, published a report last week about how natural gas contributes to reliable electricity. 

The American Council for Clean Coal Electricity met with DOE officials twice on the study and came away hopeful about its results. 

“What DOE is doing is long overdue, and we’re very pleased with this right now,” said Paul Bailey, the group’s president and CEO.

“It looks like it will support the need for having a fleet of coal plants in the U.S.,” he said. “We did make the point to them that the playing field is not level for the coal fleet right now.”

Four other renewable energy organizations, representing power sources like hydro, geothermal and biomass, wrote to Perry supporting the study, saying “federal and state support” such as tax credits and state renewable energy goals have prioritized wind and solar, to their detriment. 

“Your review offers an opportunity to better understand the impacts these policy decisions have had, not only on our industries, but also on the grid itself,” the groups said.

The DOE’s study is about the reliability of the electricity grid and whether federal policies to support renewable power have done more harm than good. 

Traditional sources of electricity, such as coal and nuclear, have long been considered the most reliable forms of electricity generation. 

Some experts are concerned that the growth of wind and solar power are pushing those sources off the grid. Renewable backers and many analysts dispute that contention and have told the agency as much.

Christine Tezak, the managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, predicted the Trump administration would use the study to push energy regulators toward crafting a rule supporting traditional “baseload” fuel sources like coal and nuclear power. 

The report could also inform potential legislative reforms to federal energy laws that require regulators to favor renewable sources in some circumstances. 

An effort like that might run into problems on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have raised objections to the study. 

Senate Democrats in May said the report appeared biased in favor of coal and nuclear power and could aim to “blame” wind and solar for changes in the energy industry. 

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley: 'Good chance' Senate panel will consider bills to protect Mueller Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea GOP state lawmakers meet to plan possible constitutional convention MORE (R-Iowa), a major wind energy proponent, sent Perry his own letter, calling the study “hastily developed” and one that “will not be viewed as credible, relevant or worthy of valuable taxpayer resources.”

Perry replied to Grassley’s letter on Sunday, saying the study will consider research from across the Department of Energy. Perry also offered Grassley an olive branch, noting that he used to be governor of Texas, which leads the country in wind energy production. 

But Perry told the EIA conference Tuesday that he doesn’t intend to give preference to renewable power, something he accused the Obama administration of doing.  

“I recognize the markets have had a role in the evolution of our energy mix,” he said. “But no reasonable person can deny the thumb, or even the whole hand, if you will, has been put on the scale in favor of certain political outcomes.”