As revealed in a memo leaked last week, President Trump has ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to use emergency powers to prop up failing coal and nuclear plants.
This is far from the first effort that this administration has made to bail out the nuclear and coal industries. It is doing its best to support its cronies, but it is failing. And the logic put forth by the administration to support the coal and nuclear industries have so far backfired.
The move drew condemnation from a wide assortment of environmental and pro-renewable energy groups, but also electrical industry stakeholders. You have to wonder: If we’re going to be protecting technology developed in the 1800s, what exactly is this administration going to push next?
I eagerly await the administration’s regulations protecting pagers, fax machines, and Blockbuster. https://t.co/ykLJHT4OvK
— Arnold (@Schwarzenegger) June 1, 2018
The real risk to the US electricity grid
The greatest piece of evidence – inadvertently – put forth by the Trump administration that solar and wind are ascendant, was the result of a study specifically hoping to attack the dependability of the U.S. power grid. The report, Staff Report to the Secretary on Electricity Markets and Reliability, was requested by DOE Secretary Perry as a result of lobbying by near-bankrupt coal executive Bob Murray, as demonstrated by a series of photos that led to the firing of whistleblower photographer Simon Edelman. The report was so critical to these efforts, that Energy Department staff leaked the report early, likely to protect it against political manipulation.
The result of this analysis was to show that the power grid’s stability was in fact increasing – even as wind and solar power raced to record volumes, and that the failure of coal and nuclear power was more due to competition with natural gas.
And when Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) reviewed the analysis as a result of political pressure from the DOE – it was shown that the biggest risk to the power grid was, in fact, from centralized electricity being dependent upon power lines.
Guess who else hates powerlines?
But beyond the Trump Administration’s pretense of concerns, there are parts of the federal government that have very real concerns about grid reliability. As revealed in a document put out by the Secretary of the Air Force, there is a legal requirement that Air Force bases in the United States:
Be able to power any infrastructure identified as critical to the performance of mission essential functions independent of the utility grid for the period of time needed to relocate the mission or for at least seven days, whichever is longer.
The Secretary of the U.S. Army has created a whole team – the Office of Energy Initiatives (OEI) – to help protect domestic bases against energy risk. The task of the OEI is to develop “islandable”� projects to provide the necessary energy and water resources to sustain critical missions for a minimum of 14 days in the event of a major disruption in supply.
Secretary of Defense, James “Mad-Dog” Mattis commenting on lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, testified that the “military must be unleashed from the tether of fuel.” In military situations in Afghanistan and other nations, solar, wind and batteries have proven more stable sources of power.
The nuclear industry angle
In addition to the canard of grid reliability, the Trump Administration may use other rationales to prop up nuclear power. Less than two weeks ago U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette claimed that nuclear-renewable systems could “link emission-free nuclear power plants with variable renewables like solar or wind farms and could allow nuclear power to backstop intermittent generation”.
This was made as the United States and partners launched a new push to develop small modular (nuclear) reactors (SMR). SMRs have no real operational track record to go on, so it isn’t clear that they could be used in such a fashion. While nuclear boosters have claimed that they are flexible, these advocates also claim that conventional nuclear power plants can be used in a flexible mode. This issue has been explored in detail by pv magazine, and we found that while nuclear power plants can ramp, that it is extremely impractical to do so both due to the wear on parts and the high capex/low opex nature of nuclear reactors.
But such a statement by DOE shows the reality of the situation. The U.S. government is not aiming to make nuclear power the new leader, but merely hoping to bring it back from death’s edge as a backup to the future. A future powered by the sun and the wind.