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DOE reportedly suppressing study that could boost renewables, transmission deployment

image credit: Photo 36063972 © Filmfoto | Dreamstime.com

Despite their differences on energy policy, it’s often said that Republicans and Democrats agree the need to upgrade the nation’s electric transmission infrastructure.

But the final release of a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study that would spur significant transmission development is reportedly being blocked by the Trump administration because the study also likely would hasten the rate at which coal-fired power plants are replaced with renewable generation.

The study is the Interconnections Seam Study and it models the outcomes of four scenarios of improving the links between the Eastern and Western interconnections and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

NREL’s webpage for it contains the following paragraph: “NREL conducted the initial scenario analysis for the Interconnections Seam Study and is now conducting further analysis and model enhancements as requested by the U.S. Department of Energy. That process is currently underway. The full study will be released once completed.”

But a story by Peter Fairley that was published by InvestigateWest and The Atlantic on Aug. 20 says that the Trump administration stepped in to stop the study’s release after a deputy assistant secretary in the DOE emailed her agency’s headquarters about it during an August 2018 presentation on it by one of its authors.

Fairley writes that when Joshua Novacheck, a research engineer for NREL, shared the study’s results at the presentation, Catherine “Katie” Jereza, who was in the audience, sent an email to DOE headquarters warning of the study’s implications for the coal industry.

Her warning, according to Fairley’s investigation, reached Dan Brouillette, the current energy secretary, who was then second-in-command to Rick Perry at DOE. The result was that Novacheck and Aaron Bloom, who was project leader for the study, were prohibited from discussing the study outside of NREL; the study’s findings were taken down from NREL’s website; and the study’s power-flow visualizations were deleted from NREL’s YouTube channel.

Additionally, a document obtained by Fairley shows that Bloom and Novacheck had expected to submit an article about the study to a “top grid engineering journal” within a six-week period after Novacheck’s August 2018 presentation. The article has never appeared.

Fairley based his story on interviews with five current and former DOE and NREL sources, supported by over 900 pages of documents and emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and additional documentation from industry sources.

In an email, I asked David Glickson, the NREL’s media relations, social media and editorial lead, for the agency’s position on Fairey’s article, as well as what happened to the study and when it will be completed and released.

His response, also by email, was that all the information currently available on the study can be found on NREL’s webpage for it. He also included the paragraph from the website that I quoted earlier in this post.

To at least some extent, the Trump administration’s attempt to block release of the study is like trying to put toothpaste back in a tube. In addition to Novacheck, who worked on the study, giving a presentation on it in August 2018, Aaron Bloom, the project leader for the study, gave a presentation on it at the Transgrid-X 2030 Symposium at Iowa State University in late July 2018.

Not only is Bloom’s presentation still up on YouTube, the nonprofit Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (ACEG) has a page on the study on its website that contains links to the slides from Bloom’s presentation; its press release on the study; its webinar on the study; a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about the study from the Governors’ Wind & Solar Energy Coalition; and links to stories on the study from Vox and E&E News. (E&E reported in October 2019 that the DOE was holding back releasing the study, but its story is behind a paywall.)

On top of that, the study was mentioned in “Solving the Climate Crisis,” the report that the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis issued on June 30. The section called “Move Toward a National Supergrid” contains a subsection titled “Building Block: Create a High-Voltage Direct Current Backbone to Support a National Supergrid” that says the study demonstrated that a national high-voltage direct-current electric transmission backbone could enable the country to generate as much as 80 percent of its power from zero-carbon sources in a way that would save consumers more than $47 billion.

The Interconnections Seam Study models the effects of four scenarios for improving the links between the interconnections, which it calls Design 1, Design 2a, Design 2b and Design 3. Under the least ambitious, Design 1, the seven back-to-back HVDC facilities that enable 1,320 MW to flow between the Eastern and Western interconnections are upgraded but not expanded, although some alternating current lines are built. In the most ambitious, Design 3, a macrogrid overlay is created that includes a variety of HVDC lines within and between the interconnections, as well as the expansion of AC transmission.

ACEG and other supporters of renewable generation loved the study for the same reason that Trump administration hated it: Under all its scenarios, ACEG said, the study “projects that wind and solar production will increase relative to other sources and that carbon emissions will decline as a result.” The big reason is that increased transmission capacity on the grid, particularly when it includes expanding the amount of electricity that can be shipped between the interconnections, enables the amount of renewable generators that can be built in remote areas to ship power to population centers far away. As a result, the intermittent capability of renewables can be better balanced on the grid, with solar power in the west being shipped east rather than curtailed and wind from the plains being shipped west when solar diminishes on the west coast.

The heat wave that recently caused load shedding in California demonstrates the need for transporting large amounts of power over long distances. The amount of power that California could import was limited because the heatwave affected other western states, too. But if the whole area had been able to import power from the Midwest, the California Independent System Operator might not have had to shed load at all.

In addition to opposition from the Trump administration, other problems must be overcome for the macrogrid, or supergrid, as the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis called it, proposed in the Interconnections Seam Study to become reality.

Chief among them is that “there’s really no business or regulatory model for building the sort of large-scale transmission that the study is contemplating,” said Ari Peskoe, the director of the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program’s Electricity Law Initiative.

As the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis' report noted, even though the HVDC lines that would be part of the macrogrid would benefit the nation, “they would not rise to the top as priorities through existing [regional transmission organization] and ISO transmission planning processes because they would not address the localized reliability concerns on which RTOs and ISOs focus.”

The report said that could be overcome by having the federal government “designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors with these priority HVDC transmission lines in mind” and providing financial support through loan guarantees or tax credits.

Alternatively, Peskoe said, the government could build the macrogrid itself or incentivize the dominant transmission owners, which are the investor-owned utilities, to build and own it.

“Tell them, ‘You’re going to make billions of dollars from this, now go and do it,’” he said.

Given the DOE’s receptivity to any of the scenarios presented in the Interconnections Seam Study, however, the government seems unlikely to take any action towards the creation of a macrogrid while Donald Trump is president.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 26, 2020 11:28 am GMT

To at least some extent, the Trump administration’s attempt to block release of the study is like trying to put toothpaste back in a tube. In addition to Novacheck, who worked on the study, giving a presentation on it in August 2018, Aaron Bloom, the project leader for the study, gave a presentation on it at the Transgrid-X 2030 Symposium at Iowa State University in late July 2018.

Not only is Bloom’s presentation still up on YouTube, the nonprofit Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (ACEG) has a page on the study on its website that contains links to the slides from Bloom’s presentation; its press release on the study; its webinar on the study; a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about the study from the Governors’ Wind & Solar Energy Coalition; and links to stories on the study from Vox and E&E News. (E&E reported in October 2019 that the DOE was holding back releasing the study, but its story is behind a paywall.)

Not only all that, but if the goal is to protect coal-- there's really only so much that can be done. The industry is on the pathway it's on and delaying it's demise really isn't helping anyone. Makes you wonder if the political goal is to just delay any negative consequences until after November elections so the coal industry doesn't have another reason to feel like the Administration failed to live up to its promise to 'protect' them

Eugene Hunt's picture
Eugene Hunt on Sep 3, 2020 2:35 pm GMT

Excellent reporting! Not surprising of course, given this admin's unflagging support for fossil fuel-based generation and antipathy toward anything that looks "green". But still profoundly disappointing, given superior economics, performance, consumer and environmental benefits. 

Need I say it? VOTE in November!  

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