Oops: Rick Perry may have stumbled upon the solution to going 100 percent renewable

Buried in his grid study is how electric cars and smart control systems will enable deep penetration of solar and wind energy

Recharging Telsa cars. CREDIT: AP/Chuck Burton
Recharging Telsa cars. CREDIT: AP/Chuck Burton

Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s new grid study is filled with buried treasure, including the solution to enabling very deep renewable energy penetration: The future is smart control systems and electric cars.

The study was intended to find out if renewable energy is jeopardizing the nation’s power grid and causing coal-fired and nuclear power plants to close. Perry ordered the report to support the case he’d been making that renewables were harming the grid. As it turns out, though, the recent sharp increase in renewable penetration doesn’t harm grid reliability or flexibility — which is in fact higher than ever — but it does offer major benefits.

Renewables were at most a minor contributor to the shutdown of baseload coal and nuclear power plants in recent years — the real culprit was cheaped fracked gas and the fact that many of those plants were 60 or 70 years old.

And buried deep in the report is the fact that renewables help stabilize prices and make Americans’ electricity bills more manageable. The report also explains that a source of grid flexibility in the future (if it’s needed because of much deeper renewable penetration) would be “smart charging” plug-in electric vehicles. Utilities could use these to balance out electricity demand and generation:

An aggregated fleet of vehicles or chargers can act as a [demand response] resource, shifting load in response to price signals or operational needs; for example, vehicle charging could be shifted to the middle of the day to absorb high levels of solar generation and shifted away from evening hours when solar generation disappears and system net load peaks.”

DOE’s national labs are researching this possibility, and one European utility is already doing it.

As we reported Wednesday, the Trump team tried to rewrite the study to make renewable energy look as bad as possible, but they mostly failed. Because an earlier draft by the Department of Energy (DOE) staff leaked last month, we know what changed after President Trump’s political appointees had a chance to rewrite it. The rewrite focused mostly on the section on findings, while the bulk of the 187-page report contradicts them.

Since the report totally undercuts Perry’s ongoing attacks on renewables, the political appointees tweaking the findings can do little more than put some scary language about the future: “Market designs may be inadequate given potential future challenges.

The problem with even this assertion is that, again, it is totally undercut by analysis buried deep inside the report. As the report explains, the design of the grid has been evolving rapidly — and lots of technologies have been entering the market that increase grid flexibility and will continue to support ever deeper penetration.

As the report explains on page 88, “Several flexibility options are available to grid operators, such as [demand response], fast-ramping natural gas generation, and energy storage.”

One of the cheapest way to flexibly fill the gap from a lull in winds or clouds blocking the sun is “demand response,” which involves paying commercial, industrial, and even residential customers to reduce electricity demand with a certain amount of advance warning. I discussed the key role demand response can play back in 2016, after a Supreme Court decision put efficiency and demand response on a level playing field with generation.

The DOE study explains that, already, half of Texas’ short-term reserves, known as spinning reserves, come from its demand response program. The study notes that “consumer end uses—including building energy management systems, as well as water and space heating and cooling—can also serve as [demand response] resources,” using technology to balance demand with generation from wind and solar.

The Perry report elaborates on another strategy that has helped integrate more renewables. It refers to DOE’s January report, Transforming the Nation’s Electricity System: The Second Installment of The Quadrennial Energy Review, which found that “fast ramping fossil” technologies — such as natural gas generation, which can be rapidly brought online, unlike coal-fired plants — have actually helped the growth of renewables, “providing reliable and dispatchable back-up capacity to hedge against variability of supply.”

In other words, fast-ramping fossil has enabled natural gas to play a valuable supporting role for bringing on more renewables. Remember, we don’t have to take the grid to zero-carbon tomorrow. We just need to steadily reduce carbon pollution, first by making an orderly transition away from coal, and then by shrinking the role of gas to a purely supporting role, and finally by going 100 percent carbon free, even perhaps with some fast-ramping fossil for extremely rare situations.

In fact, the Perry study offers some high praise for renewable energy.

“There is a growing understanding of the abilities of [variable renewable energy] to economically contribute to grid flexibility and reliability through operational changes and advanced power electronics,” the study says. “Recent technology advancements now enable wind plants to provide nearly the full spectrum of” reliability services.

The study further notes technology advancements can also enable solar photovoltaics to provide such services. DOE and California’s independent grid operator “recently demonstrated a First Solar 300 MW PV plant that provides active and reactive power controls, plant participation in automatic generation control, primary frequency control, ramp rate control, and voltage regulation.” Last year, I wrote about a similar solar project in Ohio.

The bottom line: No matter what massaging of the findings team Trump have done, the DOE grid study makes perfectly clear that we can keep increasing renewable energy penetration while increasing grid reliability and flexibility. And that will not only keep electricity bills manageable for Americans, it will cut carbon pollution.