It is widely accepted in the energy industry that U.S. coal production will fall as a percentage of the total electric grid mix.
That has little to do with its high carbon footprint per kilowatt-hour generated; it is largely due to far greater supplies of much cheaper fracked natural gas.
It is also widely accepted that renewable energy sources will increase as a proportion of the total as technology advances continue to lower their costs—and that unpredictable wind and solar generation may threaten grid stability.
Add those together, stir in President Trump's campaign pledge to "bring back coal"—seasoned with the denial of climate science he shares with his EPA head Scott Pruitt and Department of Energy secretary Rick Perry—and you get a rationale that may allow the new administration to downplay renewable energy while boosting the dirtiest fossil fuel.
That's the suggestion contained in a Bloomberg story on a study ordered by Secretary Perry that is to examine whether federal policies promoting renewable energy sources threaten the stability of the grid by increasing retirement of coal and nuclear plants.
Perry ordered the 60-day review in an unpublicized memo dated April 14 that was obtained by Blooomberg News.
Coal, by Flicker user oatsy40 (Used Under CC License)
The story quotes a portion of the memo written by Perry to his chief of staff, Brian McCormack.
“We are blessed as a nation to have an abundance of domestic energy resources, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric," he wrote, "all of which provide affordable baseload power and contribute to a stable, reliable and resilient grid."
Perry was previously governor of Texas, the state that produces more wind energy than any other, although wind is not mentioned in the list of energy sources with which he notes the U.S. is "blessed."
The former governor has long been known as a strong proponent of fossil fuels, and has variously denied and questioned the science of climate change in the past.
The 60-day study is to assess current regulations, subsidies, and tax policies to ascertain the degree to which they are "responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants.”
Perry also tasks the study group with considering whether wholesale energy markets properly value the contribution of coal and nuclear plants to grid resilience, due to their ability to store fuel onsite.
Containers holding spent nucleat fuel [Nuclear Regulatory Commission photo]
The Trump Administration has made no secret of its contempt for the Clean Power Plan put into place by the EPA under President Obama, which will contribute to U.S. reductions in carbon output toward its commmitments under the global Paris Climate Treaty signed last year.
Numerous rules, mission statements, and other operational facets at both the EPA and the Energy Department under Pruitt and Perry seem to make it clear that under Trump, both agencies will ignore climate change, downplay scientific inquiry, promote fossil fuels, and perhaps work to limit or reduce renewable energy sources.
In that, the Trump Administration is going against a substantial portion of the business community—which, unlike some parts of the U.S. political spectrum, appears to accept science and is required to plan ahead for possible impacts of climate change.
Dozens of large and very large U.S. corporations have signed a group letter to the administration asking it to leave in place the carbon limits, to honor the Paris climate pact, and so forth. That letter does not, thus far, appear to have had much effect.
On the other hand, the falling costs of renewable energy and fracked natural gas will likely continue to reduce coal's share of the U.S. grid mix—and even its share of the world energy market.
China has clearly indicated it is happy to take over the role of climate-change leader if the U.S. abdicates, and has backed that up by such actions as ending plans for more than 100 coal-fired power plants, including some already under construction.
Global carbon emissions have been flat for three years running; it's not nearly enough to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, but it's a start.
Moreover, numerous experiments by electric utilities with various forms of energy storage are directly addressing the potential grid destabilization from sudden spikes and dips in wind and solar power.
Several California utilities have installed pilot facilities containing large, carefully climate-controlled arrays of lithium-ion and other types of energy-storage batteries.
Those permit renewable energy to be captured, stored, and then fed back into the grid at a controlled rate when demand surges.
Solar energy comes during daylight, of course, when electric usage is higher—but wind power is strongest at night, when demand is lowest.
Energy-storage units thus serve two purposes: both grid stabilization and allowing, for the first time outside large dams, utilities not only to generate electricity but to store it as well for use in high-demand periods.
Tesla and SolarCity energy storage array on Ta'u, American Samoa
None of that appears to be reflected in the secret DoE memo described by Bloomberg.
A pessimistic view of the memo is that it will substantially hurt renewable energy adoption by large utilities, and lead to renewed interest in carbon-heavy coal and highly expensive nuclear power that will require enormous federal subsidies.
A more optimistic view is that it's a desperate effort by a fossil-fuel-obsessed administration simply to delay a slow but inevitable global switch from fossil-fueled energy to renewable sources—one upon which history will not necessarily look kindly.
Check back in 20 years to see which view proves more accurate.
[hat tip: Zero X Rider]
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