The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Here's the bottom line on the Energy Department's grid study

with Paulina Firozi


Late Wednesday, the Energy Department published its long-delayed but much-anticipated report on whether the U.S. electric grid can handle the retirement of aging coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

The big questions the grid study sought to answer were these: What is driving the closures of those power plants? And what should be done about it?

The report's answer to that first question is notable in that it's already widely known: The No. 1 reason coal and nuclear power plants are closing is that they are being priced out of the electricity market by an abundance of cheap natural gas pumped from hydraulic fracturing projects that have come online over the past decade. 

"The biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements has been the advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation,” the study states.

Renewable energy advocates were concerned the DOE study would instead finger wind and solar energy as the main culprit. Some of President Trump's allies -- such as Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research and a member of Trump’s energy transition team --  argue that solar and wind, despite their falling costs, are not reliable energy sources on which to build an electricity grid because their power waxes and wanes as the sun shines or the wind blows. 

Instead, the 187-page report listed the rise of wind and solar, along with government regulations and stagnant electricity demand, as a secondary causes behind the closures of coal and nuclear plants.

"The framing was widely seen as setting up a document that would champion coal and nuclear and point to shortcomings of wind and solar," The Post's Steven Mufson reports. "But the report, which was written by the department’s career staff, rejects the premature label."

However, it's the answer to that second question — what should be done? — that has given coal and nuclear advocates cause to celebrate the study, and solar and wind advocates cause to denounce it.

The study's policy recommendations include various measures that would likely have the effect of boosting coal and nuclear power. They include requests that: 

  • the Environmental Protection Agency ease permitting requirements for new investments at coal-fired plants
  • the Nuclear Regulatory Commission do the same with regard to safety requirements
  • and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission compensate grid participants that help keep power reliable.

What happens now? The follow-through, if any, on these policy recommendations will largely happen outside the Energy Department, as suggested in the list above. 

Neil Chatterjee, the new chairman of FERC, for one, said last week that coal plants should be "properly compensated to recognize the value they provide to the system."

But the Energy Department already considered — and rejected implementing — another suggestion from the report. Under the "Further Research" section, the report encouraged officials to look into using emergency powers under the Federal Power Act "to ensure system reliability and resilience." Last week, a coal executive close to Trump, Robert Murray, asked the White House to use that law to temporarily wave environmental regulations for coal plants. The Trump administration declined to do so.

Some other notes on the study:

-- The report doesn't directly mention "climate change." It does, however, cite "[r]ecent severe weather events" that have "demonstrated the need to improve system resilience"... without offering a possible reason as to why those severe weather events might be happening recently. (Here is a hint.)

From policy consultant Ben Inskeep:

-- Energy Secretary Rick Perry focuses very little attention on the findings themselves in a letter written to accompany the report. As Dave  Levitan, author of the book "Not A Scientist," summarizes...

...and so on. 

-- The grid study puts the Trump administration in a bind. Perry does write that "certain regulations and subsidies are having a large impact on the functioning of markets, and thereby challenging our power generation mix." But he leaves cheap natural gas unmentioned — even though it is the main reason for the decline of coal and nuclear, according to the report. The Trump administration has made support for natural gas extraction and exportation a pillar of its "energy dominance" platform. Policies that boosts coal and nuclear plants may also dampen the competitiveness of gas-fired electric generation.

-- The grid study also puts environmentalists in a bit of a bind too — at least when it comes to any policy born out of the study that helps both coal and nuclear. "Environmental groups, which have hailed the decline of coal in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming, oppose saving coal plants in this way," writes the New York Times's Brad Plumer. "Yet some experts think that preventing the closure of nuclear power plants, which produce no emissions, could prove helpful for climate efforts."

-- But it could have gone worse for wind and solar supporters. One of the key figures in shepherding the grid study to publication was Travis Fisher, a political hire and senior adviser at the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

Before joining DOE in January, Fisher was an economist at the conservative Institute for Energy Research. In a 2015 report for the institute, Fisher wrote that the “single greatest threat to reliable electricity in the U.S. does not come from natural disturbances or human attacks” but was rather “bad policies” from the federal and state governments. These policies included subsidies and mandates supporting wind and solar power.


-- Yet another federal government website has removed references to the previous administration's climate-change agenda.

This time, it's the website of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which is a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The alteration largely involves just one word — "change" — and appears to be relatively minor when compared to, say, the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to remove its climate change website. 

The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, which scrubbed and saved Obama-era versions of web pages across the federal government, found five references to “climate change” that were altered to read “climate” on the NIH website, As The Post's Lenny Bernstein reports:

A headline that read “Climate Change and Human Health,” for example, was altered to “Climate and Human Health.” A menu title that read “Climate Change and Children's Health” in June now appears as “Climate and Children's Health.” Links to a fact sheet on “Climate Change and Human Health” also were removed

A NIEHS spokesman downplayed the change.

“It’s a minor change to a title page,” the spokesman told The Post, “but the information we provide remains the same. In fact, it’s been expanded.”

The phrase “climate change” is still on the site below a section headlind “Climate and Human Health” and a “Climate Change and Human Health Literature Portal” has not been removed.

-- Closing in on Clovis: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) are urging President Trump to withdraw his nominee to be the Agriculture Department's chief scientist, saying that the pick of Sam Clovis would be a “clear as day message to the world that this administration continues to tolerate hate."

“President Trump should withdraw the Clovis nomination immediately — not only because he is a proud ‘skeptic’ of climate change and wildly unqualified... but also as a gesture to the American people that this administration is serious about rooting out the most hateful voices in our society,” the senators said in a joint statement.

The senators warned that Democrats would otherwise “vehemently oppose his nomination and urge our colleagues from both parties to come together and summarily reject him as well.”

Clovis, who said in May 2014 he was “extremely skeptical” about climate change, has questioned former President Obama’s birthplace and previously referred to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as a “racist black” and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez a “racist Latino.”

Sen. Schatz tweeted warning that the nomination would be a test for the GOP:

Zooming out: With all of Trump's Cabinet-level nominees installed, Senate Democrats are taking rhetorical aim at picks for lower-level posts. Often the most pointed criticism has been directed, unsurprisingly, toward officials with a history of making racist comments, such William Bradford, an Energy Department official who once tweeted that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was a "little arrogant self-hating Jew." Shortly after The Post publicized those tweets, five Democratic senators called for his removal. 

-- S-O M-A-N-Y A-C-R-O-S-T-I-C-S: A University of California at Berkeley professor resigned from a role as science envoy to the State Department after witnessing what he called President Trump’s “attacks on the core values of the United States.”

"Your failure to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis has domestic and international ramifications," wrote Daniel Kammen, who has been in the post since February 2016, and has served in various roles for the federal government since 1996. "Particularly troubling to me is how your response to Charlottesville is consistent with a broader pattern of behavior that enables sexism and racism, and disregards the welfare of all Americans, the global community and the planet."

But what really caught readers' attention was not what Kammrn said, per se, but what he spelled out. Read from top to bottom, the first letter of each paragraph in his resignation letter made up the word “I-M-P-E-A-C-H.”

Read Kammen’s full letter, which he tweeted out, below:


Sound familiar? It is. Earlier this month, the resignation letter from 17 members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities spelled out the word "R-E-S-I-S-T" along the left margin. Sensing a growing pattern, The New Republic's Emily Atkins argued enough is enough:

Still, for at least three reasons, this gimmick should not become a trend. One: These resignation letters are unprecedented and important on their own, shining light on how the president’s destructive nature makes it impossible for public servants to do their jobs. Two: The acrostics are a distraction, overshadowing the letters’ primary message. Three: Acrostic poems should never, ever be allowed to escape the drab beige walls of our nation’s middle-school classrooms.


-- Storm watch: A hurricane warning has been issued for Texas’s Gulf Coast early this morning for the weather system known as Tropical Storm Harvey. Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow and Brian McNoldy report that the system is expected to unload “dangerous amounts of rain” when it reaches Texas. The warning is in effect for the area from Port Mansfield to Matagorda. The storm’s current maximum sustained winds are 45 mph, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, which reports Harvey will likely strengthen into a hurricane by Friday as it moves toward Texas’s southern coast. Harvey would be the first hurricane to hit Texas since 2008.

-- Risky business: President Trump’s director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency expressed support for decreasing the amount of risk that falls on the federal government after disasters, shifting more of it onto local governments and homeowners themselves.

"I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk going forward," FEMA administrator Brock Long told Bloomberg. "We have to find ways to comprehensively become more resilient."

Long floated limiting coverage for flood-prone homes, according to the report.

"There are a handful of properties that create a large portion of that cost burden," he said. "We’ve got to start there, and at some point cut that off."

In July, The Post's Brady Dennis reported on what are called “severe repetitive loss properties," homes that have been covered over and over again by taxpayers:

One house outside Baton Rouge, valued at $55,921, has flooded 40 times over the years, amassing $428,379 in claims. A $90,000 property near the Mississippi River north of St. Louis has flooded 34 times, racking up claims of more than $608,000. And an oft-flooded Houston home has received more than $1 million in payouts — nearly 15 times its assessed value of $72,400. The data is collected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the insurance program. The extreme cases are only a fraction of the NFIP’s 5 million active policies, but they historically have accounted for about 30 percent of its claims.

-- A group of states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have agreed to additional goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions as part of an existing multistate cap-and-trade program. Governors from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont announced that they plan to cut emission by an additional 30 percent from 2020 to 2030 as part the Regional Greenhouse Initiative.  

The proposed 2030 cap would be 65 percent lower than the cap the initiative began with in 2009.

One political takeaway: At least in blue states, elected Republicans have enough political coverage to push for greenhouse gas reductions. As Politico’s Alex Guillen points out:

-- Worth a read (or at least a look): It's well known now that Alaska’s permafrost, the always-frozen layer of rock and soil, is thawing in many parts of the state due to climate change. But the New York Times offers a stunning visualization of the disturbing fact that, as the paper's Henry Fountian writes, “much of the frozen ground, a storehouse of ancient carbon, could be gone” by 2050.



  • Today is Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's deadline for a final recommendation on whether to shrink or eliminate 27 national monuments.

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