Republican senator criticizes energy secretary’s grid reliability study

Sen. Chuck Grassley is confused by DOE’s rush to finish the study in 60 days.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) wonders why Energy Secretary Rick Perry requested an expedited study on how wind energy might be harming the financial future of coal-fired and nuclear plants. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) wonders why Energy Secretary Rick Perry requested an expedited study on how wind energy might be harming the financial future of coal-fired and nuclear plants. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

A Republican senator is pushing back against an electric grid reliability study ordered by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, expressing concern that the Department of Energy has predetermined that wind energy is undermining the grid.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Perry, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a long-time supporter of wind energy, questioned the premise of the DOE grid reliability review and expressed confusion over Perry’s rush to finish the study. The DOE secretary gave his staff 60 days, or until mid-June, to complete its review on the nation’s electric grid.

“I’m concerned that a hastily developed study, which appears to pre-determine that variable, renewable sources such as wind have undermined grid reliability, will not be viewed as credible, relevant or worthy of valuable taxpayer resources,” Grassley wrote in the letter.

In April, Perry sent a memo to his chief of staff that ordered DOE to study whether government support for wind energy and other renewable energy resources is threatening the reliability of the nation’s power grid. The memo specifically directed the agency to look at 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.”

Grassley contended the study appears to be duplicating research done during the Obama administration. At least one similar study has been conducted by DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and that study took two years to complete, he said.

The NREL study, released in 2012, concluded that renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, provides enough reliability to supply 80 percent total U.S. electricity generation in 2050.

Grassley is a long-time leader in Congress for favorable tax treatment of wind energy, including the wind energy production tax credit. The current credit is due to phase down over the next few years before ending in 2020.

Former President Barack Obama visited a wind farm in Haverhill, Iowa during his reelection campaign in 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Former President Barack Obama visited a wind farm in Haverhill, Iowa during his reelection campaign in 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

His home state has the second-most installed wind energy capacity in the nation, and approximately 6,000 jobs in the state are supported by the wind energy industry. More than $9.8 billion in capital investment has been made in wind farms and manufacturing facilities in Iowa and another $8 billion investment is expected in the next five years, according to the Iowa Wind Energy Association.

Wind currently generates over 36 percent of Iowa’s electricity, ranking the state first in the nation for wind energy as a share of total electricity generation.

“Not only is Iowa’s wind energy resource reliable, it’s also affordable,” Grassley told Perry. MidAmerican Energy, the largest electric utility in the state and a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, has had only one electricity rate increase since 1998 and the utility company’s rates are the ninth-lowest nationally, the senator noted.

The Iowa senator suggested DOE staffers study his home state’s experience with wind energy. “Any study reviewing the impact of wind energy on grid reliability and security should look closely at Iowa’s utility operations as evidence of its success,” Grassley said.

Grassley is the first Republican senator to publicly question Perry’s decision to conduct the 60-day study. Iowa’s junior senator, Joni Ernst (R-IA), hasn’t commented on the Perry memo, but she has spoken favorably of wind energy, while expressing support for an “all of the above” energy policy that includes greater reliance on natural gas.

Two weeks after Perry ordered the grid reliability study, several Democratic senators called the request “a thinly disguised attempt to promote less-economic electric generation technologies, such as coal and nuclear, at the expense of cost-competitive wind and solar power.”

“It does not take a Ph.D. in economics to understand that it is historically low natural gas prices that are challenging the viability of other conventional generating sources in electricity markets,” the Democratic senators wrote.

In 2015, Congress extended the tax credit for wind production until 2020 as part of a bill that also lifted the ban on crude oil exports. Democratic leaders said they would not support any bill to lift the crude oil export ban if it did not include provisions — such as the production tax credit for wind and the investment tax credit for solar — to support renewables as well. The largest wind-energy producing states are dominated by Republicans, many of whom also supported the extension of the production tax credit.

In his questions about the DOE grid study, Grassley asked Perry whether his staff intends to work with the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a nonprofit regulatory authority whose mission is to ensure the reliability and security of the electric power system in North America, and regional grid operators on the study to ensure the issues are “rigorously studied and analyzed.”

Grassley also wants to know if DOE has hired a contractor to conduct or assist with the study and whether the department plans to publish the report in draft form and take comments “in order to benefit from the expertise and input of stakeholders.”

A DOE spokeswoman told E&E News that her agency is “committed to conducting a thorough review “ that “relies heavily on the research and institutional knowledge of the department’s experts from all relevant program offices and National Laboratories.”

The spokeswoman did not indicate the agency would released a draft copy of the study to allow the public to submit comments. But she did say that DOE will be making the study public once it is finished.