After attending a meeting in April with other energy ministers from Europe, Canada and Japan, Energy Secretary Rick Perry wrote a memo to his department saying there was "notable concern" among his foreign counterparts "about how certain policies are affecting, and potentially putting at risk, energy security and reliability."
The issue Perry raised was this: Could the recent changes in the way the United States generates electricity — over the past decade, a spate of coal and nuclear power plants closed as wind, solar and especially natural-gas generation picked up — mean the United States would not have enough power plants capable of running 24/7 and and delivering electricity when consumers demanded it? Is it enough, in short, to make sure the lights reliably turn on?
To answer that question, Perry commissioned a comprehensive study into "protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid." Now an early draft of that study has been leaked to the press — first to Bloomberg News and later to other outlets, including The Washington Post.
This is just the draft and not the final version, but what's notable about this first pass is that it gets only half the job done.
The draft study compiles factors that have hastened the closure of so-called "baseload" power plants, or ones that run continuously. The non-political appointees at the Energy Department that completed this draft found that while a combination of low natural-gas prices, new environmental regulations and growth in wind and solar have all undercut older coal and nuclear plants, it is the gas boom that has fueled most of the decline.
“Costly environmental regulations and subsidized renewable generation have exacerbated and accelerated baseload power plant retirements," the draft said. "However, those factors played minor roles compared to the long-standing drop in electricity demand relative to previous expectations and years of low electric prices driven by high natural gas availability."
The recommendations section of the draft, where Perry's office will be able to make its mark on the study, was left blank.
The leaked report’s language “may make it harder to sell the story that supporting renewables is detrimental to the grid,” said one Energy Department employee who requested to remain anonymous because of the sensitive discussions. “That was the angle they were initially taking.” For example, the study chose to ignore forms of renewable energy actually capable of 24/7 generation, such as geothermal and biomass, because they are "not as prevalent or widespread as gas, coal and nuclear plants."
But even stranger to experts who reviewed the draft, the study currently does not attempt to answer the second-order question of what effect, if any, fewer big coal and nuclear plants would actually have on electric-grid reliability.
That seemed to be the whole point of the study.
"The striking thing about the findings at the beginning is that there is almost nothing about reliability in there at all," said David M. Hart, a professor and director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy at George Mason. "It's all about baseload retirement. My understanding was that the big question was, how does that affect reliability? And there's almost nothing in this draft that says anything really definitive about that."
Some environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, see the term "baseload" power as outdated due to a pair of recent and unrelated trends — a drop in cost of wind and solar energy and a rise in natural-gas production.
The issue with wind and solar energy — so-called variable renewable energy — is that those sources only generate electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. But, the thinking goes, natural gas generators can be fired up during such downturns when renewable production is low to meet electricity needs. In contrast, it is more costly and time-consuming to ramp up nuclear and coal plants when needed.
"Availability of baseload power and electricity reliability are not exactly the same thing," said Trevor Houser, a partner and energy expert at the Rhodium Group, a research consultancy. He co-authored a study on the decline of U.S. coal that was cited in the DOE draft.
This is, of course, a draft, and that analysis may be forthcoming. But the question of whether that combination of gas, wind and solar is enough to make sure the lights reliably turn on was always going to be a difficult one to answer in the tight 60-day window Perry requested, according to Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford and a former Energy Department official in the Clinton administration.
"To be fair," he said, "that's a much more complicated piece of analysis."
Chris Mooney contributed to this report.
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-- Sacramento just moved even further away from D.C.: Late Monday, California lawmakers voted to extend the state's five-year-old cap-and-trade program until 2030. The vote was one of the first climate-related tests for Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who has positioned himself as a leader of the anti-Trump effort to continue greenhouse-gas emissions despite the blind eye the federal government has turned toward the issue.
Why it matters: California's cap-and-trade program, which requires emitters to buy permits to release greenhouse gases, is the only one of its kind in the country. As other states ramp up efforts to lower emissions, California may serve as a model for them. To boot, any reduction California makes is significant nationally. With its robust economy and large population, the Golden State was second only to Texas in greenhouse-gas emissions between 1990 and 2014.
-- Golf apparently trumps kayaking: The U.S. Coast Guard may implement a policy that would periodically clear the Potomac River in the two miles bordering Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va. when the president is takes to his own links. The buffer zone, writes The Post’s Peter Jamison, would prohibit canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, sailboats, jet-skis, motorboats and anglers.
The move has drawn criticism from people who use the river recreationally. One former marine who paddles on the Potomac with Team River Runner, a nonprofit helping wounded vets, called the decision “heartbreaking.” “Granted, it’s his golf course,” John Dietle told Jamison. “But he has other golf courses.”
-- On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on the nomination of David Bernhardt to be deputy secretary of the Interior.
Bernhard would just the second of Trump’s nominees to the Interior Department to be confirmed, following Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Environmentalists previously urged Democrats to vote against Bernhardt over his lobbying work for several energy companies.
This man has seen 20 solar eclipses:
-- Total eclipse of the solar market: Next month’s highly anticipated solar eclipse may cut power supply from solar farms and panels that power about seven million homes, Bloomberg News reported. On Aug. 21, as the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, it will cast a 70-mile-wide shadow across the surface of the planet, blocking out sunlight along a path stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. The shadow could threaten more than 9,000 megawatts of solar power, according to Bloomberg’s calculations.
“The duration of the eclipse (12:05 p.m. to 4:09 p.m. New York time) is too short to meaningfully boost demand for fossil fuels," Bloomberg's Naureen S. Malik reported. "But it could trigger spikes in wholesale power prices, especially since demand tends to surge in the summer as people blast their air conditioners."
And while we’re talking about the solar eclipse, read more about the upcoming astronomical event from Post colleague Sarah Kaplan. She tells the story of Mike Kentrianakis, who has witnessed "20 solar eclipses in his 52 years, missing work, straining relationships and spending most of his life’s savings to chase the moon’s shadow across the globe. The pursuit has taken him to a mountaintop in Argentina, a jungle in Gabon, an ice field north of the Arctic Circle — exposing him to every type of eclipse there is to see, on every continent except Antarctica. Last year he watched one from an airplane 36,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean." He is so enamored of the celestial phenomenon that his video from an Alaska Airline flight went viral, Sarah reports, cementing Kentrianakis's reputation as "crazy eclipse guy."
-- Where else does the United States have an infrastructure problem? Antarctica. A small town with just about a thousand residents during peak research season is home to the ambitious Antarctic research program in need of several infrastructure overhauls. The New York Times dove deep into some of the concerns facing the McMurdo Station under a Trump administration that wants to gut the federal budget. For example, the ship that currently delivers supplies is a “a decrepit 40-year-old vessel" and aging buildings are in need of replacement. The National Science Foundation that runs the research program already has a plan in mind, the report notes, but it “is almost certain to cost hundreds of millions of dollars," report Justin Gillis and Jonathan Corum.
- National Press Club will hold an event featuring Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
- The House Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hold a hearing on federal natural resources,
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy will hold a hearing on “Examining the State of the Electric Industry through Market Participant Perspectives.”
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on energy and resource security.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources holds an oversight hearing on onshore oil and gas development in Alaska.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies will markup the 2018 Interior Appropriations Bill.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks holds legislative hearings on Wednesday.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on the Renewable Fuel Standard on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Committee hold legislative hearings on five bills on Wednesday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on the Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation for Wildlife Act on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans will hold an oversight hearing on the Magnuson-Stevens Act on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold an oversight hearing on the future of hardrock mining on Thursday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a nomination hearing on several Energy and Interior Department nominees on Thursday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife will hold a hearing on water infrastructure on Thursday.
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