Lawmakers are questioning the motives behind the Department of Energy’s decision to study whether government support for renewable energy resources are threatening the reliability of the nation’s power grid and contributing to the closure of coal-fired and nuclear power plants.
In a letter sent to Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Monday, several Democratic senators called the request for the grid reliability study “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.”
The study appears intended to blame wind and solar power for the financial difficulties facing coal and nuclear generators and suggest that renewable energy resources threaten the reliability of the grid, the senators said.
In a memo to his chief of staff last month, Perry requested DOE investigate how federal subsidies boost one form of energy at the expense of baseload generation. 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.”
Clean energy groups — American Wind Energy Association, Solar Energy Industries Association, and Advanced Energy Economy — contend that policies supporting the deployment of solar and wind power, energy storage, and advanced grid technologies “are not playing an important role in the decline of coal and nuclear plants.” Instead, numerous studies have demonstrated that low natural gas prices and stagnant load growth are the principal factor behind the retirements of coal and nuclear plants, the groups said in a letter to Perry.
The groups also emphasized the importance of DOE conducting the study in an open and transparent manner. “When agencies prepare reports with policy recommendations that could affect entire industries and the millions of employees that work in them… it is customary for them to seek comments on a draft prior to the study being finalized,” the letter said.
In the memo to his chief of staff, Brian McCormack, Perry called on DOE staff to complete the study within 60 days. Prior to joining Perry’s staff, McCormack was vice president of political and external affairs at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a major trade group for investor-owned electric utilities.
In this position, McCormack worked with the states to change net metering policies and push for fixed charge increases on electric bills, “part of a larger effort by EEI to attack distributed renewable energy like rooftop solar power,” Matt Kasper, research director at the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute, wrote in a recent report.
The Energy Department selected Travis Fisher, a political appointee, to lead the grid study. Fisher worked as an economist for the right-wing Institute for Energy Research (IER) for three years before joining DOE in March. IER bills itself as as a free-market group that fights regulations it sees distorting the energy market and restricting the use of coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of lower-emission wind and solar power.
The senators questioned why Fisher, “a former official with the Koch Brothers-funded Institute for Energy Research” who has written and spoken extensively against renewable energy technologies, was chosen to lead the study. “The notion that a 60-day review conducted by ideologues associated with a Koch Brothers-affiliated think tank should supplant research and analysis conducted by the world’s foremost scientists and engineers would be a grave disservice to American taxpayers,” they wrote.
The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell (WA), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Mazie Hirono (HI), Al Franken (MN), Tammy Duckworth (IL), Ron Wyden (OR), and Martin Heinrich (NM).
“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 senators wrote. “The vast majority of coal and nuclear plants that have or may soon be retiring are located in regions with lower renewable, but higher natural gas generation levels.”
Last week, Perry, speaking at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) conference in New York City, cited national security as a possible reason that DOE would intervene in state energy planning that it concludes is a threat to baseload coal generation and nuclear power.
“Are there issues that are so important to the national security of this country that the federal government can intervene on a regulatory side?” Perry said, according to an E&E News report. “I’ll suggest to you that there are, from the standpoint of being able to have, and make sure that we maintain, a baseload on our grid is of national security.”
In response to Perry’s statements at the BNEF conference, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) told ThinkProgress at Saturday’s People’s Climate March in Washington that the DOE does not have authority to roll back renewable energy mandates in the states. “He would have to come through Congress to stop the states from deploying renewable energy,” Markey said. “That would be basically, from my perspective, unconstitutional. They can’t tell the states what to do with regard to renewable energy.”