Energy Dept. report aims to boost coal, nuclear power
A new federal study into the changing electricity sector mostly affirms the market-driven decline of coal and nuclear power while providing a series of policy recommendations to boost the two fuels.
The highly anticipated Department of Energy (DOE) report does not include sweeping policy proposals, but it does recommend that the department encourage federal energy and environmental regulators to take more steps to support coal, nuclear and hydroelectric power.
The DOE report also supports conducting more research into the integration of renewable power into the electric grid, but it doesn’t take aim at state or federal policies that have helped wind and solar power grow.
The four-month study within the DOE has been the subject of consternation and opposition among renewable energy supporters since Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered it in April.
Renewable energy boosters have worried the report would reaffirm Trump administration rhetoric against wind and solar power and justify government support for fossil fuels.
But the report doesn’t doubt the reliability of the electric grid, even as it moves away from traditional baseload power plants. Instead, it recommends future research into the grid’s ability to respond to disruptive outside events such as natural disasters.
The study contains an analysis of the energy sector accepted by most observers. It concludes that market factors — primarily the increase of natural gas production in the United States — have contributed to the retirement of traditional baseload power plants, or large-scale facilities that generate reliable electricity and are traditionally fueled by coal or nuclear sources.
Lower electricity demand, government regulations and the rise of wind and solar power have also contributed to changes to the electric grid, the study concluded.
The report recommends streamlining the regulatory process for hydropower, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission not add to nuclear plant operating costs and that regulators “allow coal-fired power plants to improve efficiency and reliability without triggering new regulatory approvals and associated costs.”
It also says the DOE should research ways to “improve” the integration of renewable energy onto the electric grid in order to “increase grid operational flexibility and reliability.”
The report’s recommendations are not formal directives but merely suggestions for Perry and his team.
The potential policy changes include a series of steps favored by fossil fuel and nuclear power groups, as well as hydropower supporters who have urged an overhaul of the federal permitting process for their sector.
The coal-sector recommendation tracks with the Trump administration’s approach to the fuel, including its aggressive attempt to deregulate the mining and coal-fired power sectors. Meanwhile, the recommended policy priorities for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are in line with what the nuclear industry has been calling for, as well.
Still, the report does not say whether wind and solar power are damaging to the electric grid or that regulators and Congress should move away from supporting the fuel, as some had worried it might.
DOE officials said that the report was not vetted by the White House, which received a copy of the study on Wednesday afternoon and that it represented a consensus opinion among career staffers who worked on it. Perry received a copy of the study days ago and was briefed on it on Tuesday.
“America is … fortunate to have a variety of fuel sources,” Perry said in a statement.
“We need to consider how to use each effectively while recognizing our differences and unique state and regional circumstances. We also need to recognize the relationship between resiliency and the price of energy.”
Renewable energy groups had worried the Trump administration would use the report to criticize the growth of wind and solar and its impact on the decline of coal, which has seen its electricity market share steadily fall over the last decade.
As the report was coming together, Perry did little to assuage their fears. When he ordered the study in April, he alluded to “market-distorting” policies that have promoted renewable power, and in a June speech he said that “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.”
Wind, solar and renewable energy groups pushed back on the study, as did their supporters in Congress.
The final report does not reflect the type of hostility to renewable power that President Trump and others in his administration have voiced. But Perry reiterated Wednesday that he has concerns about federal policies that have aided wind, solar and other renewable sources.
“It is apparent that in today’s competitive markets certain regulations and subsidies are having a large impact on the functioning of markets, and thereby challenging our power generation mix,” he said in his statement.
“It is important for policy makers to consider their intended and unintended effects.”