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Science Marchers, Secretary Perry’s Memo and Bill Nye’s Optimism

By Planning Engineer | Climate Etc. | April 24, 2017

On April 14th, 2017 Rick Perry wrote a memo headed “STUDY EXAMINING ELECTRICITY MARKETS AND RELAIBILITY” calling for study to investigate how long term energy trends my impact the grid.

My “sciencey” friends on social media are linking to this article, “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Wants to Know if Solar is Eroding the Electricity Supply” and reacting with incredulity and derision. Overall the comments mostly are insults such as wondering if this is really an article from the Onion, to questioning if he were dropped on his head as a baby. As far as substance I have not seen much that has gone beyond asserting that various places with more solar and/or wind resources have better reliability and lower outage rates. If the later sort of comments were the start of a dialogue, that would be a good thing. Unfortunately they seem to be a way to emphasize the discussion is over and dismiss any concerns around renewables. Why does any potentially critical examination around the capabilities of renewable energy engender such outrage?

What is contained in the memo?

It starts out reasonably enough:

At the most recent G7 Energy Ministerial, my colleagues discussed the need for an energy transition utilizing greater efficiency and fuel diversity. There was also notable concern about how certain policies are affecting, and potentially putting at risk, energy security and reliability. It impressed upon me that the United States should take heed of the policy choices our allies have made, and take stock of their consequences.

A reliable and resilient electric system is essential to protecting public health and fostering economic growth and job creation. The U.S. electric system is the most sophisticated and technologically advanced in the world. Consumers utilize heating, air conditioning, computers, and appliances with few disruptions. Nonetheless, there are significant changes occurring within the electric system that could profoundly affect the economy and even national security, and as such, these changes require further study and investigation.

Discussing a need for an energy transition with greater efficiency and diversity sounds like a positive step and it is prudent to consider impacts on energy security and reliability. Clearly we should look at what other nations are doing. We do have a great electric system but there are changes underway that could profoundly impact the power system. It should be obvious we need further study and investigation.

Baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning electric grid. We are blessed as a nation to have an abundance of domestic energy resources, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric, all of which provide affordable base load power and contribute to a stable, reliable, and resilient grid. Over the last few years, however, grid experts have expressed concerns about the erosion of critical baseload resources.

Could not agree more. See my posting, Renewables and Grid Reliability, from January of 2016 for a full treatment of such emerging issues.

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.

Renewable resources are leaning on the power system. These are mainstream concerns that have increasingly been articulated in various forums. For more detailed treatment see, All megawatts are not equal and More renewables? Watch out for the Duck Curve.

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.

I think coal fired-generation within the US has taken a hit which it is unlikely to recover from. Policies may have hastened the retirements of various coal facilitates, which if left alone might still be operational and contributing to the grid today. However with the cost of gas and its associated infrastructure it is too costly to bring back or construct new coal generation for the foreseeable future. I would not spend too much time crying over spilt milk.

Each of these and other related issues must be rigorously studied and analyzed, and the Department of Energy is uniquely qualified for the task. The results of this analysis will help the federal government formulate sound policies to protect the nation’s electric grid. In establishing these policies, the Trump Administration will be guided by the principles of reliability, resiliency, affordability, and fuel assurance-principles that underpin a thriving economy.

I’m glad to see the attention given to these important considerations. I would prefer the last sentence read, “In establishing these policies, the Trump Administration will be guided by the principles of reliability, resiliency, affordability, respect for the environment and fuel assurance-principles that underpin a thriving economy.” As argued here before (Balance and the Grid), energy policy must balance economics reliability and public responsibility. However I expect that in this case the Secretary may be trying to emphasize the major components that have suffered from a lack of attention.

I am directing you today to initiate a study to explore critical issues central to protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid, using the full resources and relationships available to the Department. By Wednesday, April 19, 2017, present to me an implementation plan to complete this study 60-days from that date, that will explore the following issues:

  • The evolution of wholesale electricity markets, including the extent to which federal policy interventions and the changing nature of the electricity fuel mix are challenging the original policy assumptions that shaped the creation of those markets;
  • Whether wholesale energy and capacity markets are adequately compensating attributes such as on-site fuel supply and other factors that strengthen grid resilience and, if not, the extent to which this could affect grid reliability and resilience in the future; and
  • 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.

I have committed to the President that this report will not only analyze problems but also provide concrete policy recommendations and solutions. I also committed to the President that I will do everything within my legal authority to ensure that we provide American families and businesses an electric power system that is technologically advanced, resilient, reliable, and second to none.

Certainly such information would help drive policy decisions. In closing he makes a strong commitment to advancing technology and providing resilience and reliability. This appears to be a perfectly reasonable request and commitment for the US Secretary of Energy to make. As mentioned earlier, perhaps this memo would include some commitment for environmental responsibility. But understand that in the United States we have multiple departments and agencies with often competing interests that are designed to provide balance. The Secretary of Energy will not operate in isolation and perhaps it is a good thing that he is primarily focused on “Energy” issues as his agenda will be balanced by other competing interests within our political process.

Reactions to the Memo

I struggle to find anything much of significance that anyone within the grid expert community would take issue with. Of course we will have to wait and see how the study comes out and examine its findings and conclusions. There may be problems at that point, but at this time it is just a call for information. Yet many “science fans” find Secretary Perry’s actions threatening, preposterous and ridiculous on the surface. Why is that?

The “science” support community as represented by recent marchers puts a lot of faith in what is seen as the consensus of climate experts. Evidently this respect for “experts” does not extend to grid experts. They tend to accept that there are no proper grid concerns because of assurances by those in the renewable industries, as well as those with strong self-promotional interests.

Does Mr. Nye have the answer?

I see “science fans” applauding and promoting Bill Nye’s call for 100% renewable generation by 2050.  One might think if one endorsed Mr. Nye’s plan it would also be prudent to encourage studies such as the one advocated by the Secretary of Energy. Certainly Mr. Nye is not a power systems expert, nor have I seen him reference any when he is explaining how such a transition can be accomplished. We should all be at least somewhat skeptical about the potential consequences of such a significant endeavor.

What I may be missing is the role of “optimism” which Mr. Nye assures us is a necessary ingredient for this transition. I’d seen hints of this before and perhaps what is happening is that far too many people obstinately reject any criticism regarding renewables because they believe that optimism is crucial if the planet is to be saved. Consequently no one should utter a disparaging word about any of the potential “preferred” renewable solutions. The view seems to be that we must get started now and we will work out the distracting details as we go along.

Perhaps this explains why those who view climate with extreme alarm often show no tolerance for criticism of renewable energy? Otherwise, why are grid experts not trusted? Grid experts have academic credentials, share a common body of knowledge, and continually build and alter their understandings based upon empirical evidence. Individually and collectively they work to be innovative and develop new approaches and challenge older perspectives. Grid experts have a proven track record of success. As I’ve argued before, grid experts do not for the most part have a strong vested personal interest in the status quo. An ambitious, aggressive transfer to greater renewables would increase the demand and likely compensation for most all existing grid experts.

Bill Nye says, “You are not going to accomplish anything unless you are optimistic”. Could it just boil down to a belief in optimism that causes the self-identified “science support community to recoil and scoff at projected potential risks to the grid? Is this the drive for so much anger and derision? Will increased knowledge and experience shrink the division? Certainly virtue signaling is going on, surely there is an element of tribalism, undoubtedly group think and cognitive dissonance play a part as well, but in the end is it just about optimism?

Hopefully it would go without saying, but let me be clear – The power system is a complex, crucial critical infrastructure that has overarching societal importance and benefits. Avoiding critical reflection while attempting to transition to something new, in order to maintain optimism with vague hopes that innovative solutions will somehow appear when needed is a ludicrous idea that will not only serve to harm us all, but will also work to retard the advance of future beneficial renewable technologies.

April 25, 2017 - Posted by | Economics, Science and Pseudo-Science, Timeless or most popular | ,

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