Is the Trump Administration blocking the science on a renewable-powered future?

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It’s no secret that the Trump Administration “digs coal.” The evidence that this administration is trying to stack the deck in favor of fossil fuels (and nuclear power) is overwhelming; from the appointee of a former coal lobbyist to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to the ham-fisted attempt by Energy Secretary Perry to ram a coal and nuclear bailout through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), to the appointment of a former propagandist for the fossil fuel industry to a seat at FERC.

The Trump Administration has also attempted to suppress information on the Climate Crisis, including removing the page on climate science from the EPA website and removal of references to climate change on other parts of the EPA website and documents.

However, the Trump Administration now appears to have taken this another step further, and removed a study showing that the United States can get the large majority of its electricity from renewable energy from the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Dr. Christopher Clack is a “joint first author” of Future cost-competitive electricity systems and their impact on U.S. CO2 emissions, which finds that the United States can get 79% of its electricity from non-emitting sources (wind, solar, nuclear and hydroelectric power) at a lower cost to consumers than today, without deploying batteries. This feat would be accomplished primarily through the buildout of a nation-wide high voltage DC (HVDC) network.

Dr. Clack and every other author of the paper were affiliated with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory at the time of publication. He says that he noticed that the study was not at its URL on the NOAA site around a month ago. The paper was published in 2016, and internet archives indicate that the study was last accessed on August 2017.

However, NOAA has not removed all references to Future cost-competitive electricity systems, as there is a press release on the site dated January 2016 which discusses the work. However, all links on that page that go to the study or further discussion of the work are dead.

In an email to Dr. Clack, NOAA noted that the work was no longer funded and suggested that it had been removed to “free up resources” – including erasing three years of weather data and scenario results that Dr. Clack says other scientists were trying to access for their research.

Fortunately, Future cost-competitive electricity systems is still available for free on the website of Dr. Clack’s energy forecasting company, Vibrant Clean Energy.

 

“Blocking” SEAMs?

One energy writer says that this is not the first time that the Trump Administration has blocked science on the move to a future powered by renewable energy. Peter Fairley, writing for IEEE Spectrum, alleges that “political appointees” at the U.S. Department of Energy blocked publication of a study by its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that looked at potential integration of the Eastern and Western U.S. grids via high-voltage DC lines.

Plenty of references to the SEAMs study can be found online, but no final report, and the fate of these two studies is generating a great deal of concern in the energy community.

Several days after the publication of this article, DOE responded to pv magazine’s request for comment on Fairley’s allegation, stating that SEAMS had not been blocked, but instead expanded, and that it expects to publish initial results in 2020 and the full report in 2022. Per the statement by DOE:

DOE career staff reviewed preliminary results and saw an opportunity to strengthen the study by expanding the project to model and analyze additional scenarios. This includes refining methods and data parameterization for improved modeling of transmission congestion within capacity planning tools and grid operations models. The improved characterization of congestion through this strengthened scope will model how this transmission expansion can contribute to reliability and resilience in the future grid.

 

Update: This article was updated at 4:30 PM EST on September 16 to cite an explanation from NOAA emailed to Dr. Clack as to why his study and years worth of data had been erased from the site. It was further updated at 10:25 AM on September 20 to feature the response by DOE.