Everyone is Missing Something in the Grid Study
In April, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry requested that the Department of Energy investigate the threats to the electrical grid posed by the use of renewables. Since then, other groups have released similar studies and decried Perry's as a sham that will only be a political shield for President Trump's policy agenda. A final version released last week, however, surprised many with its balance and scientific precision. Overall, the report correctly blames natural gas for the retirement of slower and dirtier coal plants instead of faulting renewables as conservatives often claim. But people mostly see what they want to see in the report. Various commentators are cherry-picking what to highlight from the report--few are grasping it in full.
Fossil fuel lobbyists and conservative researchers tend to ignore the support fossil fuels get from government. One conservative think tank's statement on the grid report only names prominent subsidies for renewable energy like solar and wind when discussing distortions in the market. They're right about those effects of those subsidies, but similar federal programs supporting fossil fuels aren't small.
According to a report by Management Information Services, Inc., a DC consulting firm, the oil and gas industry has received 54 percent of all energy incentives since 1950. Federal energy incentives and favoritism only recently flipped to favor renewables––and flipped big. From 2011 to 2016, renewable energy got more than three times what oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear received combined.
A huge form of support for the fossil fuel industry is harder to quantify, however. The electrical grid is built with fossil fuel producers in mind. The system is designed to move power in one direction, from producers to consumers. With the emergence of distributed energy sources,, however, electricity now moves from consumers to be used by others--as well as from large power plants. Many current energy policy debates are artifacts of the grid's design and represent a conflict between the old model and what may eventually become a new way of powering our lives.
Too often, criticisms of government support for renewables bleeds into arguments that the technology itself is useless--which is something the grid study refutes. It's also where renewable energy advocates have better arguments. As the study notes, renewable energy use can stabilize energy prices since they are inexpensive to run once they're built, and less affected by short-term price swings than fossil fuel sources.
Environmentalists and climate change activists, just like conservatives, sometimes go too far in their own zealous interpretations of the grid study. For example, Dr. Joe Romm, a physicist who served as the Acting Assistant Secretary of the DOE in the Clinton administration, and is one of the most influential climate science bloggers in the world, highlighted only the parts of the grid study that discuss the positives of renewable energy. In doing so, he doesn't explain why it is that renewables have been able to enter the grid without causing the kind of harm conservatives predicted to reliability and security. The backbone of renewable energy use turns out to be fast-ramping natural gas.
In fact, the research cited by the study says that a “[one] percent increase in the share of fast-reacting fossil generation capacity is associated with a 0.88 percent increase in renewable in the long run.” Because new natural gas plants can turn on or off quickly, and without outrageous operational costs, they have been used to mitigate the variable nature of renewable energy sources like wind and solar. When the wind slows or clouds obscure the sun, natural gas picks up the slack.
The coverage of the DOE report makes it easy to highlight the information that fits your ideological bias about energy policy. A full reading, however, suggests that the study should temper the arguments of those worried about the impact of renewable energy on the grid, but also bring restraint and caution to those who rush to mandate the use of renewable energy. The world is never as simple as we would like it to be, but too often our policy proposals are. Given the complexity of the electrical grid and energy policy, cautious reflection and consideration is indispensable for good policymaking.