News Article | April 19, 2017
Energy Secretary Rick Perry has ordered a study of the US electric grid, complaining that it is “losing its diversity” even as it adds wind, solar, geothermal and fancy new batteries. Even though this has created thousands of jobs in new industries, he says the opposite is happening in his memo: Specifically, many have questioned the manner in which baseload power is dispatched and compensated. Still others have highlighted the diminishing diversity of our nation's electric generation mix, and what that could mean for baseload power and grid resilience. This has resulted in part from regulatory burdens introduced by previous administrations that were designed to decrease coal-fired power generation. Such policies have destroyed jobs and economic growth, and they threaten to undercut the performance of the grid well into the future. Finally, analysts have thoroughly documented the market-distorting effects of federal subsidies that boost one form of energy at the expense of others. Those subsidies create acute and chronic problems for maintaining adequate baseload generation and have impacted reliable generators of all types. Many are outraged, thinking that this will be an attack on renewables. Yet Chris Mooney of the Washington Post suggests they might be over-reacting, noting “even this seemingly dull inquiry has stirred controversy” because Trump. He quotes a Bush administration EPA official who “said he thought critics might be over-interpreting the Perry memo as a slam against renewables.” That was so yesterday. Today Perry appointed a certain Travis Fisher to lead the study. According to Hannah Northey at E&E News, Fisher is a political appointee at the Department of energy who previously worked with “the Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit energy think tank that advocates "free-market" energy and environmental policy.” He also tweeted about it; I copy some here. Northey quotes some of his op-eds in The Hill: Fisher warned that the U.S. EPA clean air rules posed a threat to coal-fired power plants, and that the agency was "coming after" gas plants as anti-nuclear activists threatened reactor closures. "These closings pose a serious threat to the grid as we know it," Fisher wrote. "Forcing reliable sources of energy off the grid will only increase the risk of blackouts and raise electricity prices for households across America. "But excessive regulation isn't the only issue facing the grid," Fisher continued. "Other policies undermine our electric system by subsidizing unreliable sources of power like wind and solar, which provided around 4 percent of our electricity generation last year. Subsidizing unreliable generation while wiping out reliable sources is a huge gamble — a real-time experiment to see whether or not we can keep the lights on." Sounds like a setup, and that this report is going to be a slam against renewables after all.
News Article | May 2, 2017
President Trump has appointed Daniel Simmons, a conservative scholar who sharply questioned the value of promoting renewable energy sources and curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, to oversee the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), according to an email distributed to department employees. The selection marks one of several recent Trump appointments to top energy and environmental posts, which appear to repudiate the Obama administration’s policies aimed at shifting the nation to low-carbon sources of electricity. Last week, Trump nominated David Bernhardt, a lobbyist who served at the Interior Department under George W. Bush, as Interior’s deputy secretary. And Alex Herrgott, who had served as majority deputy staff director at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has joined the White House Council on Environmental Quality to serve as associate director for infrastructure. Though no official announcement has been made, the acting head of the office, Steve Chalk, sent an email to DOE employees Monday saying that Simmons, a member of the Trump transition team, will become the principal deputy assistant secretary for EERE. Simmons will serve as acting assistant secretary until someone is confirmed by the Senate for the post, Chalk added. “Daniel has been with us through the transition and we look forward to his continued leadership and insights moving forward,” Chalk wrote. Simmons’s appointment was first reported by E&E News. EERE’s primary mission is to foster the development of renewable and energy-efficient technologies. That includes investments in electric vehicles; solar, geothermal and wind energy; and technologies to reduce energy use in U.S. buildings. [New EPA documents reveal even deeper proposed cuts to staff and programs] Before Trump was elected, Simmons served as vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative think tank that espouses fossil fuel use and opposes the international climate agreement that nearly 200 countries struck in Paris in late 2015. The institute’s president, Thomas J. Pyle, headed the transition team for the Energy Department but has returned to his post in the private sector. “I applaud President Trump and Secretary Perry for selecting Daniel for a leadership role at the Department of Energy,” Pyle said of Simmons’ appointment. “His years of experience in energy and environmental policy and appreciation for the power of free markets and consumer choice will bring a fresh perspective to the agency.” Testifying before Congress in July, Simmons criticized federal financial support for the Ivanpah power plant, an industrial-scale solar plant in California’s Mojave Desert. “It is unseemly that the American taxpayer has contributed billions of dollars to these facilities,” Simmons said of the project, which is sponsored by Google and other private companies. In a 2013 podcast with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian public policy think tank, Simmons argued that pursuing renewable energy could harm people’s pocketbooks. “The most simple of all points is that no matter what the renewable guys say, what they will admit is that their type of power — the wind and solar — is more expensive and will increase the price of electricity,” he said. “And in an economy that is struggling, it is critical that we do everything we can to keep prices low.” At a Politico energy forum last year, he was direct about his disdain for federal subsidies for renewable energy. “I think that everything should be treated equally across the board,” Simmons said. “We have to look at the track record of the oil and gas industry [which is] producing low-cost, reliable energy, particularly when the alternative is much, much higher prices.” Simmons’s appointment is likely to spark criticism from the same environmentalists who were quick to decry Bernhardt’s nomination. In his capacity as a partner at Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck, Bernhardt represented oil and gas firms, mining companies and agricultural interests. “Appointing a lobbyist like Bernhardt shows just how empty Donald Trump’s promise to drain the swamp was,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group. “From Scott Pruitt to Bernhardt, President Trump has assembled the most anti-environmental administration in history.” Herrgott’s appointment, by contrast, is likely to be less controversial. While Herrgott worked for Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has been a leading skeptic of climate science and an opponent of Obama administration plans to cut carbon emissions, he also worked with union officials and Democrats on the Hill to help ensure passage of key infrastructure measures, such as the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and the 2016 reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act. Americans for Transportation Mobility executive director Ed Mortimer, whose U.S. Chamber of Commerce-led group is made up of both business and labor interests, praised Herrgott’s selection. “The ATM coalition is glad to see someone like Alex, who has experience with and an understanding of transportation issues, join the administration as it gears up to formulate a plan to modernize America’s infrastructure.” Mortimer said in a statement.
News Article | April 17, 2017
Amid all the cacophony of President Donald Trump's first two months in office, it can be hard to parse what changes at the Department of Energy fall within the range of normalcy for a new administration -- and which do not. Well, sure, that recently appointed massage therapist from New Hampshire who tweeted about exterminating Muslims proved deviant enough to be relieved of duty. And the political aides assigned to monitor each of the cabinet secretaries for the White House have raised some eyebrows, according to The Washington Post. More generally speaking, though, it's customary for an incoming president to switch things up and appoint supporters to take the cabinet departments in new directions. The investigative team at ProPublica shed some light on this transition by digging up a list of "beachhead" appointments whom the White House has installed at the departments to get things off the ground while the permanent leadership teams materialize. GTM analyzed the new recruits installed at the DOE to see what perspectives they are bringing to the table. This is not a complete list of everyone new at the department -- the DOE declined to comment on specific personnel matters -- but from the information available, a few trends emerged. Of the 28 hires listed by ProPublica, 10 have discernable energy experience. Some worked as energy staffers on the Hill, some worked in the George W. Bush DOE and at least one spent some time at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Most of the appointees with energy experience worked as lawyers, advocates or spokespeople for coal, oil or gas companies. Of the new energy staffers who have not worked in energy-related fields, many served the Trump campaign as state-level coordinators. Several had served Gov. Rick Perry in some capacity before he assumed leadership of the department. One used to work for Sen. Jeff Sessions, the early Trump backer and current attorney general. Then there are the wild cards, like Kyle Yunaska, a tax analyst at Georgetown University whose primary connection to the administration appears to be his status as the brother-in-law of Eric Trump, the president's son. Here's a breakdown of the new recruits and the perspectives and experience they're bringing to DOE. Every new administration brings in its own political appointees. It's a natural reward for hard work on an election that paid off. It's not surprising, then, to see eight of the new staffers come from roles in the Trump campaign. The beachhead team includes operatives from Ohio, Illinois, Texas and North Carolina. A few others advised Gov. Rick Perry and Ben Carson in their respective presidential bids. For instance, Justin Bis served as deputy state director of the Ohio GOP during the election cycle, with previous experience at the Michigan Republican Party. Brett Fetterly is coming from a foreign policy position at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies; he also advised Gov. Rick Perry's 2016 presidential campaign on foreign and security policy. ProPublica lists their titles, and those of most of the beachhead hires, as "assistant to the secretary." Higher up in the campaign hierarchy, Wells Griffith, battleground states director for the Trump campaign, will take on the role of "senior White House advisor." Then there's White House Liaison Joseph Uddo, who made headlines in April for his brusque approach to packing some Trump supporters into Delaware's GOP delegation. These and the other campaign vets will now apply their political experience to the day-to-day operations of the department. Of the 10 beachhead hires with a readily apparent background in energy, at least six have professionally represented or advocated for fossil fuel companies. Incoming Executive Advisor G. Michael Brown describes his experience in his LinkedIn summary: as manager for market development and government relations in Texas for Chesapeake Energy, "he handled state-specific issues, advocated for increased demand for compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles and managed a nationwide public speaking and advocacy portfolio within the oil and gas sector." Attorney Joshua Campbell brings "11 years of oil & gas industry experience." Suzanne Jaworowski served as director of communications at Sunrise Coal, a company active in the Illinois basin that bills itself as the second-largest coal producer in Indiana. Doug Matheney ran the Ohio operation of the Count on Coal campaign, which attacked the Clean Power Plan and other regulations that would make it harder to burn coal for electricity. Resumes like that are sure to make clean energy advocates anxious, but they also denote an understanding of different aspects of the American energy system. "The people who represent these industries are the people who know these industries the best, whether they’re renewables or whether they’re coal," said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at Bracewell’s policy resolution group, which represents energy companies across the fossil fuel, renewables and utility sectors. "This administration is going to have a different focus than the previous administration," he added. "They don't like renewables as much as the previous administration." The Obama administration wanted to support the growth of renewables, and brought people to DOE with experience in that industry. Trump has long made clear a preference for bolstering domestic coal and gas production, so it's not surprising he would turn to people who have advocated for those industries. The question now is how the fossil fuel professionals will use their positions within DOE to influence the nation's energy mix. Fossil fuels still produce two-thirds of the electricity made in the U.S., so those industries remain relevant to energy policymaking. Renewables advocates, though, are concerned that new arrivals might disadvantage the up-and-coming clean energy technologies in favor of incumbent coal, gas and oil. Scott Sklar has worked for clean energy in Washington for decades, including 15 years at the helm of the Solar Energy Industries Association. He's seen Republican administrations bring in their people to the DOE's renewables offices, and said progress on clean technologies had come out of that process in the past. "In the two different Bush administrations, many of the people in it from the traditional industries held a very open mind on allowing, in principle, new technologies in the marketplace -- that at least you should not put in artificial barriers," Sklar said. "In this administration, because they're picking a set of players who have been ideologically opposed to opening markets for new technologies and have been actively involved in trying to close off the new technologies, we don't expect that more dispassionate scenario to play out." Sklar was referring to a number of Trump appointees with ties to Koch Industries, the massive oil and gas conglomerate whose owners have sponsored well-documented efforts to forestall the growth of renewable energy and electric cars at the state and national levels. Trump tapped a former Koch lobbyist, Thomas Pyle, to run the energy transition team. Among the beachhead hires, there's an indirect monetary connection. Travis Fisher and Daniel Simmons worked in policy roles at the Institute for Energy Research, a D.C. nonprofit that produces research critical of clean energy subsidies. Official filings show that Charles Koch was on the board of directors of IER's predecessor, and Politico reported that the Kochs help fund IER. Trump in energy speeches has cited IER research that predicts big economic benefits from increased fossil fuel drilling on public lands. That indicates the organization had some sway in his energy thinking even before some of its members joined his DOE, or at least that its findings fit a narrative he wished to broadcast. Now the administration is hiring people for the DOE whose experience makes them well suited to carry out that vision of expanded extraction of domestic fuels. Unlike the emerging fields of clean energy, where DOE labs and basic research grants have helped new technologies get to market, oil, gas and coal companies have been operating at scale for decades, and tend to cite government regulations rather than the vagaries of cutting-edge technology transfer as the key obstacle to their growth. What service, exactly, can Trump's DOE provide to expand extraction of conventional fuels? There is an Office of Fossil Energy which guides research into "clean coal," carbon capture and storage and unconventional oil and gas recovery. Beachhead hire Mark Maddox was an acting assistant secretary there for the George W. Bush administration. But we haven't heard much talk lately about utilizing that unit, and the president's skinny budget includes fossil energy among the DOE programs slated for budget cuts (coal companies have asked that it be spared). A less active DOE might not hurt conventional fuels, but it certainly would put a damper on the innovation that has helped reduce the costs of renewable energy and expand its deployment in recent years. That could eventually decrease the rate at which renewables eat into conventional fuels' market share. Brash and unqualified hires, like the quickly-fired massage therapist, aren't the most pressing threat to renewables, said Minh Le, who ran the SunShot program at DOE and worked in President Barack Obama's Office of Management and Budget. "The greater concern comes from professional energy-sector appointees with immutable ideological beliefs about climate change and who know how to get things done, rather than from former campaign staffers with little or no relevant energy sector background and whose only qualification was supporting the president in the campaign." As the beachhead hires settle into their new roles, it will become clearer whether they have a positive strategy to enact for boosting American fuel production, or whether stripping away help for advanced clean energy will be more of a priority.
News Article | May 3, 2017
President Trump has named Dan Simmons, an opponent of policies meant to promote renewable energy, to lead the renewable energy office at the Department of Energy. Simmons formerly worked at the Institute for Energy Research, a self-styled, free-market energy think tank that is funded largely by fossil fuel interests. An Energy official announced Simmons’s appointment to lead the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) in a recent email to employees, which noted that Simmons started at the department during the Trump administration’s transition period. His appointment was first reported by E&E News. Financial Times: Eclipse to Test U.S. Electric Grid Reshaped By Solar Power The first total solar eclipse to darken U.S. skies in a generation has forced utilities to draw up contingency plans for an electric grid increasingly powered by the sun. A giant shadow moving west to east on August 21 will temporarily remove “a large amount of photovoltaic resources” from the country, a regulatory body concluded last week. California’s grid operator on Monday estimated the eclipse would boost its net demand by 6,000 megawatts, enough power for the city of Los Angeles, as solar output nosedives. Eclipses are among the latest factors utility managers must consider as renewable energy becomes a bigger part of the generation mix. The last total solar eclipse crossed the US in 1979, when president Jimmy Carter bemoaned an energy crisis and renewable technology was in its infancy. Reuters: How Two Cutting Edge U.S. Nuclear Projects Bankrupted Westinghouse In 2012, construction of a Georgia nuclear power plant stalled for eight months as engineers waited for the right signatures and paperwork needed to ship a section of the plant from a factory hundreds of miles away. The delay, which a nuclear specialist monitoring the construction said was longer than the time required to make the section, was emblematic of the problems that plagued Westinghouse Electric Co as it tried an ambitious new approach to building nuclear power plants. The approach - building pre-fabricated sections of the plants before sending them to the construction sites for assembly - was supposed to revolutionize the industry by making it cheaper and safer to build nuclear plants. But Westinghouse miscalculated the time it would take, and the possible pitfalls involved, in rolling out its innovative AP1000 nuclear plants, according to a close examination by Reuters of the projects. Those problems have led to an estimated $13 billion in cost overruns and left in doubt the future of the two plants, the one in Georgia and another in South Carolina. Tri-City Herald: GAO -- Energy Department Lax in Fighting Fraud at Hanford, Other Sites The U.S. Department of Energy isn’t doing enough to cut back on the risk of fraud among its contractors, including at Hanford, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Monday. “The Department of Energy is responsible for maintaining large parts of our nuclear arsenal, and an inability or unwillingness to root out contracting fraud endangers not only taxpayer dollars but our national security,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, a former auditor, said in a statement. “The most troubling part is that the agency seems unwilling to acknowledge this is a problem.” In one case, several employees of former contractor Fluor Hanford Inc. charged purchases, including appliances and TV, for their own use to federal credit cards or they received kickbacks for purchases they made. In the second case, Hanford vitrification plant contractor Bechtel National and its subcontractor AECOM agreed in November to pay $125 million to settle a lawsuit over allegations that they had charged DOE for parts and work that could not be shown to meet the agency’s strict standards for nuclear facilities. Microgrid Knowledge: An Environmental Case for the Fuel Cell Microgrid: Producing Power with No Combustion A fuel cell microgrid produces electricity through a chemical reaction — not combusion. This gives it an environmental advantage over many conventional generation technologies, as explained in this excerpt from “Fuel Cell Microgrids: The Path to Lower Cost, Higher Reliability Cleaner Energy.“ A recent study by Argonne National Lab found that fuel cells have lower greenhouse gas emissions than those produced by the U.S. grid mix of technologies. The same study found that if higher efficiency fuels cells are used, such as those that use solid oxide or molten carbonate technology, the greenhouse gas emissions are comparable to those produced by the California grid mix, which generates 43 percent of its electricity from non-fossil renewable and nuclear sources. A California wastewater treatment plant, operated by the City of Riverside, offers a good example of the superior environmental performance of a fuel cell. The FuelCell Energy project uses renewable biogas, produced from the wastewater treatment process, as a fuel source to generate carbon-neutral power. As compared to other fuel cells which require ‘directed’ biogas with the same composition as pipeline natural gas, the FCE system operates directly on biogas, thus creating more cost efficiency.
News Article | May 4, 2017
Many Republicans have long championed states’ rights and decried federal interference at the local level. So it may come as a surprise that the Trump administration is considering actions to pre-empt state policies in order to shore up baseload energy resources. “The boot is on the other foot,” said Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas and a self-proclaimed states’ rights advocate, speaking at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Summit last week in New York. “Are there issues that are so important to the national security of this country that the federal government can intervene on the regulatory side? I’ll suggest there are.” During his speech, Perry stated that grid experts have raised concerns in recent years about “the erosion of critical baseload resources,” specifically with respect to how they’re dispatched and compensated. The problem, he said, stems from “politically driven policies driven primarily by a hostility to coal.” These concerns are what prompted Perry to order a DOE study on the extent to which wholesale market structures, federal policies, energy mandates and tax subsidies are forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants and affecting long-term grid reliability. “It is not reasonable to rely exclusively on fossil fuels, and it is not feasible to rely exclusively on renewables,” said Perry. “So we’re 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.” It is well within the DOE’s purview to assess the state of the U.S. electric grid, particularly at a time of dramatic change. What’s disconcerting to many onlookers is that the review appears to be framed as an attempt to prop up coal and nuclear energy resources at the expense of renewables like wind and solar. Following Perry’s talk last week, there’s also concern that the DOE could use the study’s findings to justify weakening state-level renewable energy policies -- something baseload energy providers have previously attempted. Sources said that such a move from the Trump administration would be hypocritical and almost unthinkable. “But who knows!” said one clean energy stakeholder, who asked not to be named because the details are still murky. “There is a huge amount of erratic policymaking going on. This is not a normal administration. [...] This is not how it’s done. It’s really hard to predict or give the benefit of doubt.” To get a better sense of what Secretary Perry was getting at, it’s worth taking a close look at his discussion with Ethan Zindler, head of the Americas at BNEF, on how the Trump administration plans to respond to policies believed to be undermining baseload energy resources. Zindler: Many of the policies that affect what is the priority, what gets dispatched and how markets work, are determined at a state and a local level. When you talk about politically driven policies, are you talking about state policies, and is that something you, at the federal level, are looking to in some way influence or interfere with? Perry: I think that is a conversation that will occur over the course of the next few years. […] I was a very strong proponent as a governor of the 10th Amendment. “Thank you very much; We know how to run Texas -- we don’t need you in Washington.” The shoe, or the boot, is on the other foot now. The reason I say that is: Are there issues that are so important to the national security of this country that the federal government can intervene on the regulatory side? I’ll suggest there are. Being able to have and make sure we’re able to maintain a baseload on our grid is of national security. Perry specifically cited the need to shore up the nuclear energy industry, not only as a source of baseload power, but also because the U.S. needs to maintain nuclear energy expertise and manufacturing capability for military purposes. The U.S. has pulled back from nuclear energy over the past 30 years, and "in doing that, the development of our weapons side is also affected,” Perry said. He continued: Perry: There is a conversation, there is a discussion -- some of it obviously very classified -- that will be occurring as we going forward to make sure that we have the decisions, made by Congress in a lot of these cases, to protect the security interests of America and that states and local entities do in fact get pre-empted with some of those decisions. Zindler: So there’s the potential for pre-emption of state laws? Perry: Well, it’s already there is some cases, so I think the conversation needs to happen so that the local governors and legislators, mayors and city councilmen and -women understand what’s at stake here when it comes to making sure that our energy security is substantial, protected. Zindler: I think that’s probably something that would send shudders through a number of people who have built projects under certain state regulations expecting those to be what their projects come to fruition under. Perry: I don’t think in that case you would see a tightening. If I’m building a project, my bet is the local restrictions are going to be tighter. And in some cases, maybe they were put tighter to influence the outcome. Making sure that we have thought through how we’re going to secure this country’s energy future is a conversation that’s going to be had over the course of the next few years. The energy secretary did not say how exactly the federal government would pre-empt state and local policies in the name of national security, so much remains unclear about Perry’s comments. However, there are some levers the government could pull. For one thing, DOE has authority under Section 202 of the Federal Power Act to use emergency authority to effectively take control of power plants. In 2005, the DOE used this authority to require Mirant Corporation’s Potomac River generating station to comply with reliability standards for the central Washington, D.C. area. So it’s possible Section 202 could be used again. The Fast Act signed by President Obama in 2015 also gives the DOE increased authority in case of a “grid security emergency,” which could include a reliability disruption. Section 215A could affect “any owner, user, or operator” of critical electric infrastructure in the U.S., even those not typically overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). DOE’s expanded authority also extends to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and Regional Entities. So perhaps this authority offers another means. The DOE could also work with FERC to influence how baseload energy resources are treated in wholesale markets, which is the subject of a FERC technical conference that took place this week. As we’ve reported, the nuclear industry is hoping that wholesale market reforms will reward nuclear plants for the clean and reliable energy benefits they generate. New wholesale market payments would throw the ailing nuclear industry a lifeline, and could help achieve U.S. decarbonization objectives, which have prompted a robust debate. While it’s hard to imagine under Republican leadership, enacting a price on carbon is widely believed to be the best market fix. As Perry mentioned, ensuring baseload reliability could also involve Congress. As a part of the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015, House members sought to require that electric utilities adopt or modify policies to ensure that “reliable generation” is included in utilities’ integrated resource plans. HR 8, as it’s known, ultimately passed in both chambers in May 2016, but differences between the House and Senate versions were never resolved. It’s possible the Trump administration could work with Congress to introduce new reliability requirements that are difficult or impossible for renewable resources to meet. So, theoretically, there are ways for the federal government to use its power to override state-level policies in support of baseload resources. The question comes back to: Why? Are reliability issues facing the U.S. electric grid really approaching emergency status? Or, as some fear, is this a veiled attempt at scaling back states’ renewable energy policies? The Energy Department’s 60-day study on baseload resources could shed some light on where this discussion is going, and whether or not there’s anything for renewable energy advocates to worry about. The intention behind conducting such a study is very telling, said Brandon Hurlbut, co-founder at Boundary Stone Partners and former chief of staff at the DOE under Secretary Steven Chu. “Doing a government study in the policymaking process can be a lot like polling in the political process,” he said, in GTM’s ongoing energy policy video series. “Sometimes you do a poll to really know the answer to guide internal decisions and you don’t release that poll, and sometimes you do a poll where you’ve asked the questions a certain way to justify an action.” If the desired action is to use federal government power to pre-empt state policies, “then we’re talking about a totally different game that I think would be very dangerous,” he said. Hurlbut added that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has already conducted several studies on the implications of high renewable energy generation levels. One report found that commercially available renewable energy technology, in combination with a more flexible electric system, “is more than adequate” to reliably supply 80 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the International Energy Agency and the California ISO have also conducted reports on renewable energy integration. NERC is also required to conduct annual, in-depth grid reliability assessments. “The reliability issues are real; they are there,” said Patrick Currier, co-founder of S2C Pacific and former energy counsel to the House Committee on Energy & Commerce. “But a lot of them are more localized issues, and you wouldn’t know [they exist] unless you studied them the way NERC does, and is required to.” If the concern is tied to cybersecurity, studies (like this one from Sandia National Labs) have found that there are issues with the integration of distributed energy resources and the traditional electric grid. However, cybersecurity is a concern across the electricity industry, not just for distributed resources. And if the integration of distributed resources is managed well, there’s evidence a more decentralized grid would enhance national security, because it prevents a single grid failure “from cascading into a catastrophe,” according to former CIA Director James Woolsey. On Monday, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and a handful of other committee Democrats wrote a letter to Secretary Perry expressing concern over the DOE study. Lawmakers took issue with the fact that Perry has given the task to his Chief of Staff Brian McCormack, who has pushed back against net metering for rooftop solar, and political appointee Travis Fisher, who previously worked for the free-market Institute for Energy Research and American Energy Alliance. “Mr. Secretary, the notion that a 60-day review conducted by ideologues associated with a Koch Brothers-affiliated think tank should supplant research and analysis conducted by the world’s foremost scientists and engineers would be a grave disservice to American taxpayers,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote. “We fear that the Department is instead 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 successfully compete on their own,” the letter states. The lawmakers added that Perry’s home state of Texas is a testament to how renewable energy can enhance fuel diversity, reduce energy prices, and improve grid reliability. Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association also wrote a letter to Secretary Perry this week, in which they welcomed the DOE’s examination of the U.S. electric power system, but stressed that the growth in wind and solar power are neither causing grid reliability issues, nor putting coal and nuclear out of business. “Numerous studies have conclusively demonstrated that low natural gas prices and stagnant load growth are the principal factors behind the retirements in coal and nuclear plants,” the letter states. The industry groups also asked that the DOE study “follow standard practice and be conducted in an open and transparent manner,” noting that it is “customary” for agencies developing reports that designed to inform policymaking allow public comment on a draft, prior to the report being finalized. Perry requested the baseload study on April 14, and the report is due 60 days from April 19. “As an industry, we want to provide information on how states like Texas, Perry’s home state, are integrating advanced energy resources while maintaining reliability, and provide an opportunity for grid experts like [regional transmission organizations] and utilities to weigh on this as well,” said Arvin Ganesan, AEE’s vice president of federal policy. Asked whether or not he sees the DOE report as a political tool being used to justify federal interference in state-level policies, he said, “We’re not focused on hypotheticals of what this could result in; we’re focused on this first step being as rigorous as possible and including as much hard data and information as possible.” Political motivations aside, nuclear and coal plant owners see the DOE study as an opportunity. On FirstEnergy’s first-quarter earnings call, utility CEO Chuck Jones said he has been in contact with the Trump administration and that market reforms will be critical to keeping coal and nuclear plants from shuttering, The Plain Dealer reports. "If their position is to keep these plants from closing, they will have to make sure there are financial incentives to keep them operating," said Jones. GTM contacted Travis Fisher to clarify what’s driving the DOE to pursue the baseload energy resources study, but he could not be reached by the time of publication. The Institute for Energy Research also dismissed a request for comment on grid reliability issues. Fisher, who has seven years of experience as an economist at FERC, wrote in 2015 that claims that renewable energy resources can entirely displace traditional baseload resources are disingenuous. Entities like Apple, Google and the Super Bowl that claim to be 100 percent renewable are connected to the U.S. electric grid, which is nowhere near 100 percent renewable. Rather, it’s more than 80 percent powered by coal, natural gas and nuclear. “And there’s good reason for that -- these technologies offer low-cost, reliable power when and where it is needed,” Fisher wrote. It’s a fair point. Even in California, the friendliest renewable energy market in the nation, a proposal to mandate 100 percent renewable energy has raised legitimate concerns about overgeneration, grid upgrades and affordability. But that doesn’t mean California and other markets can’t safely get to very high renewable energy penetration levels, or that the federal government must step in to act on a state’s behalf. Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said at a Los Angeles Business Council event last week that the state is proving, in the real world, that wind and solar do not undermine reliability and security. They are, however, affecting baseload power, he said. “Excess renewables are killing coal,” said Picker. Renewable energy is “reshaping state regulatory strategies and electric markets in the West,” and that’s largely because utilities are making the decision to take advantage of these new, competitive resources, he said. As a result, California doesn’t need the kind of baseload power plants that were built in the early 2000s; it really needs peaker plants. “We’re closing about 8,500 megawatts of gas baseload, building maybe 5 gigawatts of peakers,” he said. “This is a reshaping, and it’s all happening because renewables are killing, they are just killing.” The upcoming solar eclipse will be a prime opportunity for California to show that a grid with a strong renewable energy mix can withstand extreme variability, he added. On August 21, the Golden State is expected to suddenly lose around 6,000 megawatts of power as solar generation goes offline. “We can deal with that...without dragging baseload power plants out of retirement,” said Picker. The commissioner called on electricity sector stakeholders to engage and help the state manage the eclipse in order “to send a message to Rick Perry telling him not to worry about California.”
News Article | May 5, 2017
A funny thing happened on April 14. In a simple memo directing the Department of Energy to conduct a short-term study, the Trump Administration signaled that it was seeing advanced energy as a problem that needs to be solved. Whereas AEE has argued that homegrown advanced energy technologies like wind and solar, energy efficiency, demand response, energy storage, and advanced grid systems deserve a central role in the administration’s “America First” energy plan, the outline of DOE’s study portrays renewable energy, in particular, as a threat to electric system reliability, even “national security,” and it takes aim at federal, and even state, policies that have facilitated its growth. For the advanced energy industry, the memo was not just a study order, it was a shot across the bow. In the memo to his chief of staff, Energy Secretary Rick Perry directed DOE to perform a “60-day study” of certain “critical issues central to protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid.” In the memo, Perry expressed concerns about the “erosion of critical baseload resources” due to “regulatory burdens introduced by previous administrations that were designed to decrease coal-fired power generation” as well as “market-distorting effects of federal subsidies that boost one form of energy at the expense of others.” He directed DOE specifically to examine “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.” To be clear, we believe that the reliability of the grid is sacrosanct – no policies should threaten the grid that all of us rely on every day. Still, to us at AEE, the assumption that advanced energy technologies are harming reliability was a bit mystifying, coming as it did from the former governor of Texas, the leading wind-power state in the country, and one that the Brattle Group, in a paper for AEE Institute, showcased for its experience maintaining reliable electric power service with a high penetration of variable renewable energy. Texas also has the most open and competitive electricity market in the country, ably managed by ERCOT, showing that renewable energy development need not undermine markets designed to provide affordable and reliable electric power. It became a bit less mystifying when it became known that this study was to be put in the hands of appointees who came to DOE from the Institute for Energy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank known for its attacks on renewable energy policy. Here is a sample, from IER’s blog in September: “Allowing wind energy to find its natural place in the power grid would require elimination of the PTC and all state-level renewable energy mandates.” On April 28, AEE, AWEA, and SEIA sent a joint letter to Perry taking issue with the premises of his study order, noting that the growth of wind and solar power neither accounts for the challenges now facing coal-fired and nuclear power plants in the nation’s electricity markets nor represents any kind of threat to reliability. “We note that these homegrown energy resources are proven technologies that help support grid reliability,” the industry associations wrote. “These energy resources have already been integrated smoothly into the electric power system in large and increasing amounts, as demonstrated in countless studies and, more importantly, in real-world experience across the U.S., including in Texas. Furthermore, we note that policies supporting the deployment of these technologies are not playing an important role in the decline of coal and nuclear plants. Numerous studies have conclusively demonstrated that low natural gas prices and stagnant load growth are the principal factors behind the retirements in coal and nuclear plants.” The industry groups also called on DOE to “follow standard practice” and conduct the study in “an open and transparent manner,” noting that it is “customary” for agencies developing reports that provide policy recommendations to allow public comment on a draft, prior to the report being finalized. “Public input, including from energy market participants, grid operators, and regulators, would help ensure that any resulting recommendations from the study are based on the best available information,” wrote the industry associations. Whether or not the Administration will heed our calls for public input is an open question. Nevertheless, it is crucial that market participants present DOE with the wealth of existing data and analysis that actually demonstrates that advanced energy is improving the state of our electricity grid. We are under no illusion that the DOE study will be the end of matter. Rather, we believe that the administration may try to use the study to provide a blueprint for attacks on advanced energy policy wherever the administration can target them: in Congress, at FERC, and even in the 29 states that have enforceable renewable energy standards (the “mandates” referenced in the Perry memo). In the coming weeks, our groups will be submitting to DOE – whether asked for or not – factual information on how our electricity system operates today, with a growing mix of variable and flexible resources to provide greater, not lesser, reliability. And if the administration insists on ignoring this information and pursuing an anti-advanced energy policy agenda in the name of saving “baseload” plants that aren’t in fact needed to meet electricity needs, we’ll be getting ready for a fight. In 2015, The Brattle Group found that “ongoing technological progress and ongoing learning about how to manage the operations of the electric system will likely allow the integration not only of the levels of variable renewable capacity now in places like Texas and Colorado but even significantly larger amounts in the future.” Click below to download the full paper:
News Article | May 4, 2017
In yet another we-wish-it-were-baffling appointment, Donald Trump has announced renewable energy critic Daniel Simmons as the new head of the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Donald Trump’s appointments to key positions in his administration have been slow going, but have never failed to raise eyebrows. He appointed an ex-fossil fuel CEO to be his Secretary of State, a renowned climate skeptic to head up the transition for the EPA and a renowned EPA antagonist and fossil fuel-puppet to head up the EPA, a racist anti-equal rights muppet as Attorney General, and any number of Wall Street bankers to positions in an Administration which was supposed to be “for the people.” His energy and science appointments have been especially telling, prioritizing traditional economics over the new reality and scientific fact. So, to make matters worse and to ensure he doesn’t make a sensible appointment, Donald Trump has appointed Daniel Simmons, a conservative scholar and renewable energy critic to be the head of the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). The Washington Post‘s article on the appointment explains that “The selection marks one of several recent Trump appointments to top energy and environmental posts, which appear to repudiate the Obama administration’s policies aimed at shifting the nation to low-carbon sources of electricity.” However, that hardly seems to go far enough. Donald Trump’s appointments don’t simply “appear to repudiate Obama administration’s policies” but go all the way to simply repudiating sensible business and scientific realities. Scott Pruitt’s time at the top of the EPA will only castrate the necessary environmental work that organization has been doing for decades, in the face of all good science. Rick Perry’s time as the head of the Department of Energy will severely hamstring the country’s economic development and energy security. And appointing Daniel Simmons as head of the EERE will only further hinder America’s growth and development. Not only will it obstruct renewable energy development — a vital step in minimizing the country’s emissions — but it will likely kill billions in investment and thousands of jobs across the country. The EERE’s mission “is to create and sustain American leadership in the transition to a global clean energy economy.” So far, according to the EERE, $12 billion in EERE taxpayer investment has yielded an estimated net economic benefit to the US of more than $230 billion with an overall annual return on investment of more than 20%. However, Dan Simmons recently served as vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a notoriously conservative think tank, bought and for primarily by fossil fuel money, that unsurprisingly advocates greater fossil fuel use and opposes the international climate agreement signed in Paris. According to the group’s own website, “IER maintains that freely-functioning energy markets provide the most efficient and effective solutions to today’s global energy and environmental challenges and, as such, are critical to the well-being of individuals and society.” Recently, it has called for an end to wind subsidies, and hit out at Earth Day marches as “ignoring the economic science of climate change” based on some absurd concentric faulty reasoning. Further, the IER’s president, Thomas J. Pyle, was the head of the transition team for Trump’s Energy Department. He is quoted as unsurprisingly backing the appointment of Simmons: “I applaud President Trump and Secretary Perry for selecting Daniel for a leadership role at the Department of Energy. His years of experience in energy and environmental policy and appreciation for the power of free markets and consumer choice will bring a fresh perspective to the agency.” Simmons has gone out of his way to set himself up as the poster boy for dismantling renewable energy funding and development, doing so in such a way as to get across the least amount of reality possible. Renewable energy is too expensive, wind and solar will raise electricity prices, and oil and gas should be prioritized. He makes no mention of the massive subsidies currently backing the fossil fuel industry in America, and what that would do to electricity prices if those same subsidies were removed — or handed over to renewable energy sources. It’s a common enough argument: Fossil fuel is cheaper than renewable energy, therefore, choose fossil fuels. However, two unfortunate facts (or Inconvenient Truths, as they often like to say) give lie to this. Not only are fossil fuels supported by massive subsidies, but solar and wind are becoming more and more cost competitive all the time. All of this is to say, America’s next four years are going to be rough, whichever way you look at it. Keep up to date with all the hottest cleantech news by subscribing to our (free) cleantech daily newsletter or weekly newsletter, or keep an eye on sector-specific news by getting our (also free) solar energy newsletter, electric vehicle newsletter, or wind energy newsletter.
News Article | May 2, 2017
Foes of the Paris climate agreement have gained the upper hand in the ongoing White House debate over whether the U.S. should pull out of the historic pact, according to participants in the discussions and those briefed on the deliberations, although President Trump has yet to make a final decision. Senior administration officials have met twice since Thursday to discuss whether the United States should abandon the U.N. accord struck in December 2015, under which the United States pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The president’s aides remain divided over the international and domestic legal implications of remaining party to the agreement, which has provided a critical political opening for those pushing for an exit. On Thursday several Cabinet members — including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who’s called for exiting the accord, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who wants it renegotiated, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who advocates remaining a party to it — met with top White House advisers, including Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Both Ivanka Trump and Kushner advocate remaining part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, even though the president has repeatedly criticized the global warming deal. During that meeting, according to several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, White House counsel Don McGahn informed participants that the United States could not remain in the agreement and lower the level of carbon cuts it would make by 2025. The administration is working to unravel many Obama-era policies underpinning that pledge, and the economic consulting firm Rhodium Group has estimated that the elimination of those policies would mean the United States would cut its emissions by 14 percent by 2025 compared with 21 percent if they remained in place. This interpretation represented a change from the White House counsel’s earlier analysis and is at odds with the State Department’s view of the agreement. [Trump puts critic of renewable energy in charge of Energy Department’s renewable energy office] Susan Biniaz, who served as the State Department’s lead climate lawyer from 1989 until earlier this year, said in an interview Tuesday that the agreement reached by nearly 200 nations in Paris allows for countries to alter their commitments in either direction. “The Paris agreement provides for contributions to be nationally determined and it encourages countries, if they decide to change their targets, to make them more ambitious,” Biniaz said. “But it doesn’t legally prohibit them from changing them in another direction.” Ivanka Trump urged White House staff secretary Rob Porter to convene a second meeting Monday with lawyers from both the White House and the State Department. That session addressed the question of America’s obligations under the 2015 deal as well as whether remaining in the agreement would make it more difficult for the administration to legally defend the changes it was making to the federal government’s existing climate policies, but it did not reach a final decision. Pruitt, who is spearheading the effort to rewrite several Obama-era rules aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, has argued that exiting the agreement will make it easier to fend off the numerous legal lawsuits he will face in the months ahead. At a rally with supporters Saturday, Trump said he would make a “big decision” on Paris within the next two weeks and vowed to end “a broken system of global plunder at American expense.” Administration advisers on both sides of the political spectrum, however, emphasized that the president himself would decide what path to pursue when it came to the climate agreement. “In the end, President Trump will make the final decision, regardless of where the staff conversations end up,” Thomas J. Pyle, who heads the conservative Institute for Energy Research and led the Trump transition team for the Energy Department, said in an email. “The environmental lobby is going to cause litigation problems on nearly every aspect of President Trump’s energy and environmental agenda whether or not the administration stays in the Paris Agreement. Staying in Paris only gives them another target to shoot at.” But Paul Bledsoe, who served as a White House climate adviser under Bill Clinton and is now a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy, warned that the administration might face serious pushback from abroad if Trump seeks to withdraw from the agreement. “The Trump team seems oblivious to the fact that climate protection is now viewed by leading allies and nations around the world as a key measure of moral and diplomatic standing,” Bledsoe said in an email. “The U.S. would be risking pariah status on the international stage by withdrawing from Paris, and even a fig leaf approach of technically staying in the agreement while ignoring most of its provisions would be better than pulling out altogether.”
News Article | May 1, 2017
Blame oxidation for rusted bridges and browned avocados. But this fundamental process can be harnessed for good, too — and now scientists have scored front-row seats that could show them how. Researchers watched at near-atomic resolution as iron nanoparticles transformed into iron oxide — not rust in this case, but related compounds. That closeup view could help scientists better control oxidation and design corrosion-resistant materials or new kinds of catalysts, the researchers report in the April 21 Science. This is the first time the oxidation process has been observed in such detail, says Andreu Cabot, a physicist at the Catalonia Institute for Energy Research in Barcelona who wasn’t part of the study. When a metal oxidizes, its atoms mix and mingle with oxygen atoms to create a new material. That process is perhaps most famous for creating rust, which flakes and corrodes. But iron can oxidize in a variety of ways, some of which are useful. For instance, chemist Yugang Sun and his colleagues at Temple University in Philadelphia are trying to create hollow iron oxide nanoparticles that could serve as catalysts to speed up chemical reactions or as vessels to deliver drugs or store energy in chemical form. But making these “nanoshells” from iron nanoparticles requires precise control over the oxidation process. If oxygen atoms work their way into an iron nanoparticle faster than the iron atoms can diffuse out, that nanoparticle becomes a tight, solid ball, Sun says. If the iron diffuses out faster than the oxygen comes in, on the other hand, it becomes the hollow sphere that Sun’s lab wants. Controlling that process is difficult because it has been unclear exactly how these shells form on an atomic level, Sun says. Scientists haven’t been able to watch it happen, because high-powered microscopy techniques can disrupt the reaction or show the action in only two dimensions. Sun’s team tried a different approach to observe the reaction, by shooting X-rays at many identical iron nanoparticles suspended in a liquid. Each time the X-rays hit a different material — moving from the liquid to the solid, for instance — they scattered. By tracking how the X-rays bounced off many small, uniform iron nanoparticles, the researchers were able to reconstruct where individual atoms were going as the particles oxidized into hollow shells over the course of several hours. The researchers watched as the iron moved out of the center of the nanoparticle to react with the oxygen, initially forming many small holes inside the nanoparticle. Eventually, those empty spaces merged together to form one big void in the middle of the nanoparticle. “The impact of this paper is more than just the hollow [nanoparticles],” says Yadong Yin, a chemist at the University of California, Riverside who wasn’t involved in the research. The imaging technique itself will be a useful way to study how other types of nanoparticles form — something scientists still don’t understand well, he says. It can be used to gain insight into other types of oxidation, too.
News Article | April 21, 2017
This image illustrates that, as iron oxide undergoes oxidation, voids in the nanoparticles merge to form crescents. Credit: Alexandra Kirby / Y. Sun et al. / Science (2017) (Phys.org)—A team of researchers affiliated with Temple University and Argonne National Laboratory has developed a way to observe material restructuring at the atomic scale in real time. In their paper published in the journal Science, the team describes their technique and what they observed as they followed the progression of oxidation at the atomic scale. Doris Cadavid and Andreu Cabot with Catalonia Institute for Energy Research offer a Perspective piece on the work done by the team in the same journal issue, and also outline the history and difficulties associated with observing atomic-level changes occurring in a material. They note also that the newly developed technique is likely to have a major impact on how metals and other compounds are engineered in the future. Humans have known for thousands of years, as Cadavid and Cabot note, that materials decompose, burn or rust, and have learned more recently that such changes occur at the atomic level. To learn more about such processes, scientists have studied them in depth, but have been partially limited by an inability to actually watch what happens at the atomic level. That may be changing, as the researchers with this new effort have developed a way to watch oxidation occurring at the atomic level in real time. The method involved combining a small-angling X-ray scattering technique with molecular modeling software to track in precise detail the oxidation process of iron oxide nanoparticles—all in real time. The technique allowed the researchers to see that empty spaces would form at the onset of the process, which fused together when they grew to a certain size, creating other larger crescent-shaped empty spaces. They also found that they could control the diffusion process with the empty spaces by altering the temperature and size of the nanoparticles. Cadavid and Cabot suggest that the technique may herald the dawn of a new era in chemistry—the ability to watch the process of solids being modified at the atomic scale in real time, or slowed down for fast reactions. It could lead, they suggest further, to better controlling such processes, including finding new ways to prevent metals from suffering damage due to rusting. More information: Yugang Sun et al. Quantitative 3D evolution of colloidal nanoparticle oxidation in solution, Science (2017). DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf6792 Abstract Real-time tracking of the three-dimensional (3D) evolution of colloidal nanoparticles in solution is essential for understanding complex mechanisms involved in nanoparticle growth and transformation. We used time-resolved small-angle and wide-angle x-ray scattering simultaneously to monitor oxidation of highly uniform colloidal iron nanoparticles, enabling the reconstruction of intermediate 3D morphologies of the nanoparticles with a spatial resolution of ~5 angstroms. The in situ observations, combined with large-scale reactive molecular dynamics simulations, reveal the details of the transformation from solid metal nanoparticles to hollow metal oxide nanoshells via a nanoscale Kirkendall process—for example, coalescence of voids as they grow and reversal of mass diffusion direction depending on crystallinity. Our results highlight the complex interplay between defect chemistry and defect dynamics in determining nanoparticle transformation and formation.