The new Department of Energy report on grid reliability and retiring baseload power isn't just notable for what it includes -- it's notable for what it leaves out.
Ordered by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April and leaked in rough draft form in July, the report creates a rough policy roadmap that could favor altering market rules to benefit struggling coal and nuclear power plants.
It also offers glimpses of the advanced technologies DOE is supporting to solve the reliability and resilience problems identified -- but falls well short of embracing them.
Buried in its 187 pages are citations of projects that are supplanting the steady generation and inertial stability that coal and nuclear power plants provide, with the flexibility and scalability of distributed, digitally controlled energy resources -- solar power, energy storage, electric vehicles and demand-side resources from smart thermostats to grid-synced industrial motors.
But the only policy recommendation to emerge from this sea of potential solutions is a nod toward backing the kind of work that’s happening today at a key DOE research program, ARPA-E, which the report’s final authors declined to call out by its name.
As part of its list of research and development policy recommendations, the DOE report highlights “R&D on improving [variable renewable generation] integration through grid modernization technologies that can increase grid operational flexibility and reliability through a variety of innovations in sensors and controls, storage technology, grid integration, and advanced power electronics.”
This description leaves out the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E. "They’re basically describing ARPA-E without using the term,” said Shayle Kann, head of GTM Research.
It's a notable omission. “It’s kind of like how they manage not to put the term ‘climate change’ in there," Kann added.
The Trump administration has excised any reference to climate change made by federal agencies, including DOE. It has also submitted a budget proposal that would eliminate ARPA-E completely, an idea that’s been taken up in a House appropriations subcommittee bill (although it’s being countered by a Senate version that would slightly increase ARPA-E’s budget to $330 million for the next fiscal year).
What's missing: DOE's knowledge of distributed energy and energy storage
The study has been met with a shoulder shrug by some. It's also been condemned by green energy and environmental groups as a preordained effort to conclude that wind and solar power subsidies are driving the increasing closure of coal and nuclear power plants, and thus destabilizing the grid. That hasn’t changed with its official release.
Green groups were also dismayed by what they found lacking in the report. First, there's the lack of any mention of climate change, noted David Pomerantz, executive director of the liberal watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute.
"I think it’s fairly stunning for a report meant to reflect on grid reliability and resilience to have no mention of extreme weather and climate change as drivers for these things," he said. "That's for a pretty obvious reason -- it doesn’t match the political agenda of the administration."
But there's also very little discussion in this report about distributed energy resources, several experts on a Thursday press call noted. The term "distributed energy" only appears on three pages of the report, and it is only discussed in one paragraph to provide context for the investments utilities have made to integrate it at higher levels.
"I think there's a lot more attention that needs to be paid to distributed energy technologies to manage disruptive events that are going to affect the grid,” said Sherri Goodman, senior international security advisor at the Center for Climate & Security and former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for environmental security. "To fail to pay attention to that is just to leave Americans sitting ducks for the next disruptive event, whether caused by a natural storm or a deliberate attack.”
Energy storage does get its own section in the report, noting that it "will be critical in the future if higher levels of [variable renewable energy] are deployed on the grid. But it also concludes that "the need for storage may not be as great for a grid more reliant on traditional baseload generation."
It then mentions DOE's multibillion-dollar efforts in energy storage, fuel cells and related technologies such as microgrids, followed by a list of things the industry will need to achieve before hitting commercial-scale maturity, such as cost-competitiveness and reducing institutional and regulatory hurdles.
The report also fails to mention ongoing work at FERC to integrate distributed energy into regional transmission organization and transmission system operator market structures, said Romany Webb, climate law fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. "Currently their ability to participate in wholesale markets is very restricted," she said, "but it’s completely left out of this report. To me that’s a pretty big omission."
Kelly Speakes-Backman, CEO of the Energy Storage Association (ESA), agreed there could have been more about energy storage in the report, but she believes it gives the right framework for market adjustments and gives ESA an opportunity to pick up conversations with RTOs and ISOs, FERC and legislators.
"When you look at what storage can do for resilience and reliability, it’s pretty amazing on both sides of the meter," she said. For instance, it reduces strain on baseload power plants, reduces transmission congestion, provides grid services and offers black-start capacity. These features are not only relevant to solar or renewables, but to the entirety of the grid, she said.
"I would like to see storage get rewarded for all the different values that it brings to the market," said Speakes-Backman. "If the Department of Energy’s goal is to shore up reliability and resilience, there are products in the market besides these standard fossil fuel resources that can supply that."
The grid integration technologies hiding in plain sight -- and under budget threat
There are a handful of citations of these alternative technologies buried in the report, including some real-world examples of how wind, solar and demand response are providing these essential services today.
“Recent technology advancements now enable wind plants to provide nearly the full spectrum of [synthetic inertial control, primary frequency control, and automatic generation control],” it noted in its section on grid resiliency.
The American Wind Energy Association released a paper today elaborating on how power electronics and output controls allow wind projects to provide voltage control, reactive power control and dispatchable flexibility for regulating power system frequency -- all of which enhance grid reliability. It also gives examples of wind's ability to withstand grid disturbances, such as a cold snap, which enhances grid resilience.
On the solar side, the report notes that First Solar, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and California grid operator CAISO have demonstrated how a 300-megawatt solar PV plant can provide "active and reactive power controls, plant participation in automatic generation control, primary frequency control, ramp rate control, and voltage regulation.”
Similarly, the North American Electricity Reliability Corp. has found that demand response can provide a full range of these services, it notes. Texas grid operator ERCOT, which already gets half of its spinning reserves from demand response, is working on a DR‐based Fast Frequency Response Service that would use big controllable loads for inertia and governor response -- the types of grid stability that tend to come from big spinning masses, and make up one of a steam-fired turbine’s most attractive grid characteristics.
ARPA-E’s diverse portfolio of grant-funded projects includes some important efforts on all of these fronts. So does DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which faces proposed cuts ranging from $1.45 billion in a proposal from the Trump administration to $153 million under a Senate subcommittee proposal.
DOE’s Office of Science, which manages the national labs that provide key support for distributed energy and grid technology R&D, would face $919 million in cuts under the Trump administration’s budget proposal -- although the Senate bill would slightly increase its budget to $5.5 billion.
The DOE’s new report sits in a gray area. It's a helpful resource for identifying electricity market changes. But it doesn't go into much detail on many of the cutting-edge technology solutions to help manage that change -- or why that evolution is necessary from a climate perspective.