Senate Democrats Object to Electric Grid Reliability Study

Seven Democrats in the U.S. Senate are objecting to Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry directing the DOE to study the impact of government policies on the security and reliability of the electric grid. The seven Democrats wrote in a public letter to Perry that they fear the study will conclude intermittent power sources like wind and solar power place more burdens on the electric grid than on-demand power sources like coal, natural gas, and nuclear power.

The electric grid requires a constant balance of electricity being added to the grid and electricity delivered to customers to remain in balance. If more power is added to the grid than is being used by customers, the grid will overload, cause equipment damage, and potential grid failure. If more power is demanded than is being added to the grid, customers will experience electricity brownouts or blackouts. Accordingly, industry experts point out that baseload, on-demand energy sources that can be ramped up and down at will are more valuable and enhance grid safety in comparison to variable, unpredictable energy sources that are dependent on the vagaries of clouds and breezes.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Perry’s directive seeks a review of “the extent to which continued regulatory burdens, as well as mandates and tax and subsidy policies, are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants.”

“The result of this analysis will help the federal government formulate sound policies to protect the nation’s electric grid,” Perry wrote.

Anticipating that the DOE study may conclude wind and solar power place special burdens on the grid, the seven Democratic senators engaged in incendiary language and made unsubstantiated attacks against the appointed lead author of the study.

“This Study appears to be a thinly-disguised attempt to promote less economic generation technologies, such as coal and nuclear, at the expense of cost-competitive wind and solar power,” the letter asserted.

The letter accused the DOE of “embarking on an initiative aimed at bolstering the views of a group of special interests seeking to resurrect electric generation technologies that can no longer compete on their own.”

Despite the letter’s repeated assertions that wind and solar power are more affordable than coal and nuclear power, and that coal and nuclear power cannot compete against wind and solar power without government favoritism, objective data show exactly the opposite. The Obama administration published data showing wind power by itself receives more federal government subsidies than all conventional energy sources combined. The Obama administration published data showing the same is true for solar power. Moreover, a majority of the 50 states have renewable power mandates requiring electricity market carve-outs for wind and solar power regardless of their cost. Furthermore, the left-of-center Brookings Institution, which supports renewable power, acknowledged in a comprehensive study that wind and solar power are substantially more expensive than coal and nuclear power. The Brookings study, titled, “Why the Best Path to a Low-Carbon Future Is Not Wind or Solar Power,” documents that wind power raises electricity costs by 50 percent and solar power triples electricity costs versus coal and nuclear power.

Rather than producing any facts, data, or evidence to back up its assertions, the letter attempts to smear the appointed author of the DOE study – Travis Fisher – before the study is conducted. The letter claims any study conducted by Fisher would be “an international embarrassment.” Fisher is a DOE economist who has spent the majority of his career as an economist for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in both the Bush and Obama administrations. He holds undergraduate and masters degrees in economics. Overlooking this, the letter accuses Fisher of being an agenda-driven partisan. The letter attacks Fisher as an “idealogue” who is “associated with a Koch Brothers-affiliated think tank.” After seven years serving FERC in the Obama and Bush administrations, Fisher worked for a much shorter period as an economist at the Institute for Energy Research, a non-partisan public policy organization that receives some funding from Charles and David Koch.

Despite its personal attacks and unsubstantiated economic claims on behalf of wind and solar, the letter does make some important observations regarding natural gas. The letter observes that low-priced natural gas power is inducing a transformation of U.S. electricity generation. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data show that in 2016 natural gas overtook coal as America’s leading electricity source.

Natural gas, like coal and nuclear power, is a baseload power source. Natural gas emits only half the carbon dioxide of coal power, and reduces most other pollutants by 70 percent or more. Nuclear power emits no carbon dioxide or air pollution at all. Rather than attempting to sabotage a study of grid reliability that might uncover negative impacts of wind and solar power, the seven senators should champion the environmental benefits of two power sources – natural gas and nuclear power – that enhance rather than endanger grid reliability.

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