Department of Energy Gets it Wrong on Energy Reliability

NRDC’s Elizabeth Noll says that the Department of Energy is heading down the wrong path when it comes to energy reliability. Most power outages occur because of transmission and distribution failure. They are not due to lack of power supply. So more coal and nuclear generation will not make the U.S. grid more reliable. 

energy reliability

Elizabeth Noll, NRDC

There are three key words to keep in mind when it comes to our nation’s energy future: reliable, clean and secure. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recently appeared before U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee to try to defend the Department of Energy’s (DOE) mission and priorities. Some facts were fuzzy and the Secretary managed to dance around simple questions like, “Did you measure cost to consumers?” from Rep. Tonko with the amazing non-sequitur “What’s the cost of freedom?”. Considering the illogical and dangerous policy directives DOE is advancing and the crippling energy budget cuts proposed by the Trump Administration, it’s vital for the Secretary and Congress to focus these three words when it comes to what Americans need most from this important agency.

We need to support innovative, job-creating clean energy research, and invest in a modern, flexible grid that can maximize delivery of that pollution-free energy. And we need to focus on responsible solutions for our existing nuclear waste problem before we invest in risky new nuclear technologies.

Reliability Is a dog-whistle to bailing out coal and nukes

Secretary Perry and others in the coal and nuclear industry have been talking a lot about grid reliability lately—and implying that the way to make the grid more reliable is to require consumers to pay more for coal and nuclear power. Which fuel we use is not the determining factor in reliability. In fact, in a recent post the Rhodium Group challenged the Energy Department’s premise that in order to protect grid resilience we need to keep coal and nuclear plants from retiring. Rhodium states, “between 2012 and 2016, there were roughly 3.4 billion customer hours impacted by major electricity disruptions. Of that, 2,815 hours or 0.00007% of the total, was due to fuel supply problems.”

NRDC’s John Moore recently testified before Congress that there are a lot of factors that influence reliability, but typically, when the lights go out, it’s because of a problem with transmission lines or distribution—not because of a need for more fuel. Now that we have a variety of energy sources in our power mix, including low-cost renewable wind and solar energy, massive bailouts to the coal and nuclear industries, as Secretary Perry recently proposed, aren’t needed for reliability’s sake. Investments in grid modernization and infrastructure will improve grid reliability and resilience, not costly payments to coal and nuclear power. In fact, the DOE’s own research shows that every region in the country has an excess supply of energy. We need to make that supply cleaner, not dirtier. And we need to invest in energy efficiency as our cheapest, cleanest, and easiest tool for improving reliability. Alison Silverstein, a consultant to DOE who was involved in a recent grid reliability study at the agency, says “energy efficiency does a heck of a lot more for grid reliability than nuclear and coal plants do.”

Clean energy R&D pays dividends to all Americans

Secretary Perry says he supports innovation, but it’s not clear how he can do so under proposed budget cuts that would defund clean energy research across the department, including drastic cuts to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), the proposed elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Administration-Energy (ARPA-E), and shrinking clean energy budgets at the National Science Labs.

EERE, in addition to supporting critical efficiency programs that are helping consumers save billions of dollars on energy bills, also supports advanced manufacturing solutions, sustainable transportation and the deployment of renewable energy resources. The SuperTruck initiative, for example, has commercialized more than a dozen new technologies that make long-haul trucks use less gas—bringing costs down for all Americans. Investing in efficiency means investing in jobs, too. About eight full-time jobs are created for every $1 million in federal invested in efficiency, which is nearly three times the employment created by the same investment in fossil fuels.

ARPA-E projects have created over 30 new U.S. companies and attracted more than $1.25 billion in new, private-sector funding. Sixty projects partner with other government agencies, such as the Department of the Navy, to advance the nation’s security and economic prosperity.

Funding for efficiency and clean energy research is driving down the cost of efficient lighting, wind and solar power, and electric vehicle technology. These are the technologies and programs that are creating jobs, saving money for consumers, and bringing us closer to a climate-safe future.

“…nuclear power is a costly and risky distraction.”

Wanted: A safe solution to the nation’s nuclear waste problem
distributed energy resources

Solar and Wind Resources

The future of nuclear energy in the United States is in doubt, looking now to be in gradual decline. Most reactor licenses will expire by mid-century, and several nuclear plants are already being shuttered by market competition. Nuclear power faces significant concerns about safety, security, proliferation and waste. We don’t have a safe solution to the problem of nuclear waste, and we really need one. We have more than 70,000 tons of it stored in 100 sites across the country, and will create another 70,000 more over the next few decades. This waste needs to be stored in a way that will protect people and environmental resources from harm, for thousands of years, with consent from the communities and states impacted by nuclear waste storage. The Yucca Mountain project fails on safety and is rejected by Nevadans—it is not a solution. We need the DOE to take care of the nuclear waste problem before we consider taking on new environmental and security risks from new nuclear technology.

When we already have proven, economically viable clean energy technologies that reduce carbon pollution, such as wind, solar and energy efficiency, nuclear power is a costly and risky distraction.

The DOE’s mission is to ensure America’s energy security and prosperity. It’s a mission that can be achieved by continuing to develop the clean energy solutions that are already delivering energy savings and reliability to millions of Americans, while providing the climate protection we so urgently need.

This article originated on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Expert Blog and was reposted with permission. Elizabeth Noll  is the legislative director for NRDC’s energy & transportation program.

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  1. Richard Ganton says:

    I usually appreciate these articles but when did wind power and solar power become low cost compared to coal generation? Yes, coal generates greenhouse gasses which affect climate change. But base load and quick start generation is needed to make up for the intermittency of wind and solar. But calling wind and solar low cost with respect to coal energy makes me question the validity of this whole article. I don’t like coal either but it is still cheaper than wind and solar as far as I know.

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