Department of Energy Pressed on Grid Reliability

About a month ago, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry ordered a study examining how wind and solar impact the electric grid. Basically, his concern is that subsidies for renewables are becoming a problem because they could make the grid unstable when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow.  In his memo setting up the study, Sec. Perry suggests that baseload power like coal and nuclear will always be important to ensure reliable electricity.

Several renewable energy groups have taken his challenge seriously and prepared substantive reports demonstrating that the grid can handle more renewables.  A group called Advanced Energy Economy put out a report explaining their perspective that cheap natural gas has been the biggest driver of changes in electricity mix. More importantly, AEE said, experience has shown that the grid can be managed reliably even with a high level of renewable power and even in extreme conditions.  The American Council on Renewable Energy developed an even more forceful response to Sec. Perry. It cited evidence of large grid systems working reliability with up to 60% renewable power and suggested that renewables can be just as reliable as conventional resources.  ACORE also argued that wind and solar are not overly subsidized, as fossil fuels and nuclear power get far more incentives.

The leading wind and solar trade groups also staked out their ground.  The American Wind Energy Association argued that renewables can build a more reliable and resilient energy mix. AWEA pointed to numerous studies backing the idea of grid systems relying on 50% or more renewables.  The group also pointed out that Sec. Perry’s fears have been continuously proven unfounded.  Not that long ago it was widely viewed as impossible to integrate 5% renewables onto the grid.  Wind also may not need baseload backup power because changes in wind are gradual and can be forecasted and managed in ways that may not seem obvious.

The Solar Energy Industries Association argued that up to 30% of the grid’s power could come from renewables before any significant infrastructure investments need to be made.  Solar’s tendency to be distributed onto the rooftops of buildings can also bring a great deal of stability to the grid, so much so that emergency shelters and the U.S. military are incorporating more and more solar into their operations.

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