The defining document of Rick Perry's Energy Department is finally here.
When Secretary Perry sent a memo to his chief of staff in April requesting a review of how "market-distorting" policies are potentially threatening the reliability of the grid, it prompted swift backlash from pro-renewables groups.
They feared it was a yet another attempt by the Trump administration to dismantle decarbonization policies. Weeks later, Perry stoked those fears when he suggested that the federal government could "intervene" in states with strong renewable energy targets.
Now, after four months of speculation, dozens of hot takes, a lawsuit, and a leaked version of the report, the final draft is out. And it doesn't resemble the anti-renewables screed that many assumed it would be.
It's more like a Rorschach test for the future of the electric grid.
Looking for a wonky accounting of the state of the grid? The report delivers.
"This is not the highly politicized study that many had expected (or feared) when Secretary Perry issued the initial memo on April 14. Instead, it's a fairly well-evidenced overview of electricity markets as they stand today, the causes of coal and nuclear retirements to date, and the issues surrounding reliability and resiliency moving forward," said Shayle Kann, the senior VP of GTM Research.
Looking for a progressive plan on how to transition toward a distributed, low-carbon grid? You'll find something very different.
"Perry’s backward-looking grid study is no surprise from an administration determined to prop up the coal industry at taxpayers’ expense. We already know a flexible, modern system with less coal and more renewables is the most reliable, resilient, and cost-effective path forward," said Jim Marston, vice president for clean energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.
The final version of the report, released Wednesday night, does not condemn renewables. Consistent with the leaked draft, it identifies natural gas as “the biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements.” It also targets lower-than-expected load growth, power plant regulations and the emergence of variable renewables as secondary factors.
While renewables are not the sole focus of the report, they're cited as negatively affecting the economics of baseload power plants, specifically due to “wholesale market impacts and distortions” from state renewable portfolio standards and federal tax credits for wind and solar.
Graham Richard, CEO of Advanced Energy Economy -- a national business group that has been vigorously seeking to counter the narrative that renewables present a risk to the grid -- said he's glad to see the report recognizes the outsized influence of low-cost natural gas on baseload power plants.
But, he added, the report "seriously overstates" the challenges associated with new energy resources. "It also implies that certain power plants now losing out in the marketplace make an irreplaceable contribution to reliability and resilience, which is not the case,” said Richard.
Grid operators have said they are facing no difficulty in managing an increasingly diverse set of resources, he added. Research conducted by the California Independent System Operator, mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM, and ERCOT in Texas bear this out.
“What is happening in our power grid is a natural process of technology progress and market competition,” said Richard. “That process should be allowed to continue, [and] not be distorted by this administration’s preference for ‘baseload’ resources over the flexible resources that are modernizing the electric power system."
Investor-owned utilities are seeing their energy mixes change in real time. And while new cost-effective technologies have required utilities to employ more sophisticated planning techniques to keep the grid running smoothly, most utility leaders have embraced the shift to a cleaner, albeit more intermittent, energy system.
Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), issued a diplomatic statement about embracing all energy resources.
While the utility lobby group is still reviewing the study, Kuhn noted that EEI "has long advocated that our customers are best served by public policies that promote a balanced and diverse energy mix, which includes both traditional and renewable energy sources, and that also recognize the vital role 24/7 energy sources play in sustaining a secure, reliable and resilient energy grid.”
Resource diversity was explicitly covered in the report -- at the request of Secretary Perry, who warned of the "diminishing diversity of our nation's electric generation mix" in his memo.
The DOE report concluded the opposite. In fact, the grid mix is more diverse than ever.
"The national U.S. capacity and generation mix have become more diverse over time. Changes in capacity have moved the resource mix toward a greater proportion of natural gas, wind and solar, while coal and oil capacity have decreased. Energy generation trends for these resources have tracked changes in capacity, with natural gas generation almost doubling in proportion. While nuclear capacity has decreased relative to other resources, the proportion of nuclear generation remains unchanged as capacity factors for nuclear units have increased," reads the study.
In her response to study, Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, emphasized that "a diversified electricity mix is good for the overall system and poses no threat to the reliability of our nation’s grid."
The study did mention the potential cost-shifting consequences of solar net metering, which the DOE says it will study in greater detail.
While some renewable energy advocates were expecting a full-throated endorsement of coal in the DOE study -- particularly in light of President Trump’s campaign promises -- the report did not explicitly favor one technology over another.
However, the DOE did grant some of the coal industry’s wishes.
Ahead of the release, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity urged the DOE to "make a distinction between reliability and resilience in discussing the advantages and disadvantages of different electricity sources; support resilience analysis and the establishment of uniform resilience criteria; evaluate the risks associated with over-reliance on natural gas to generate electricity; accurately characterize the role of EPA policies in causing coal retirements; and include correct information on energy subsidies.”
The report does all of this.
The conversation now shifts to market design, with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission playing a key role.
"Markets recognize and provide for reliability, but must evolve to better address resilience,” reads one of the report’s key findings.
The agency recommends that “FERC should expedite its efforts with states, RTO/ISOs, and other stakeholders to improve energy price formation in centrally organized wholesale electricity markets."
The report also asks FERC to make recommendations regarding the value of new and existing "essential reliability services" -- basically, find a way to compensate baseload power plants for their unique attributes.
To some, that's a reasonable ask.
"Grids can handle a large amount of renewables (even 100 percent at times), but that is because there are fossil resources that can run when there is low solar, wind or hydro output, and because neighboring grids can also help cover for surplus/shortages,” said Wade Schauer, director for Wood Mackenzie's Americas Power & Renewables Research. "Replacing existing nuclear with equivalent wind/solar generation would require large investment in new transmission and additional backup gas-fired generation and/or storage."
To others, it's a wrongheaded shift in focus.
"DOE’s report focuses a great deal on a need to study and value resilience attributes provided by baseload coal and nuclear units, but it speaks far less about valuing flexibility, which helps compensate for missing baseload generation. Consider batteries, demand response, hydro, and thermal storage (smart water heaters and HVAC systems) as examples. Severe weather events won’t affect the availability of these resources, most of which aren’t even fuel-based, and many of them can help the system recover," said Michael O’Boyle, a power sector transformation expert at Energy Innovation.
The report's findings are in line with Neil Chatterjee, interim chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee, who said recently that resilience and reliability "are essential to national security” and "should be recognized as an essential part of the fuel mix.”
How (or if) FERC will create market signals to adequately compensate all generators across the stack remains to be seen.
Ultimately, the Energy Department concluded that electricity markets today are working properly.
"While markets have evolved since their introduction, they are currently functioning as designed -- to ensure reliability and minimize the short-term costs of wholesale electricity -- despite pressures from flat demand growth, Federal and state policy interventions, and the massive economic shift in the relative economics of natural gas compared to other fuels," reads the report.
"In summary, the debates surrounding wholesale markets are complex and multifaceted, but the institutions and the grid itself have historically proven flexible, strong, and able to adapt. Questions about revenue sufficiency and resilience must be addressed quickly, before the fast-moving evolution of our power system outpaces our ability to understand and manage it responsibly."
In a letter introducing the report, Secretary Perry suggested more work on the issue will be coming. "I hope the report will serve as the starting point for an important conversation about the future reliability and resilience of our electric grid."