Experts assess feasibility of Biden 100% clean energy plan

By Peter Behr | 01/14/2021 07:23 AM EST

The upcoming presidential inauguration of Joe Biden has opened the floodgates this week on proposals for achieving the clean energy future he has promised.

As the cost of wind and solar power drops, some grid experts warn that nuclear and natural gas generation may be needed to fill gaps in renewable energy supplies.

As the cost of wind and solar power drops, some grid experts warn that nuclear and natural gas generation may be needed to fill gaps in renewable energy supplies. Seagul/Pixabay

The upcoming presidential inauguration of Joe Biden has opened the floodgates this week on proposals for achieving the clean energy future he has promised.

Tuesday produced a virtual handshake between leaders of two influential nonprofit groups, the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Electric Power Research Institute, agreeing that solar and wind power will dominate electric sector expansion through midcentury.

"I think we’re going to move mountains," said Jules Kortenhorst, head of environmental policy pioneer RMI, during a video "fireside chat" with Arshad Mansoor, the CEO of EPRI, the power industry’s research center. Kortenhorst forecast a second-stage takeoff for wind and solar increasing at three or four times the past decade’s rapid growth.


But Mansoor said natural gas power plants — largely spurned by RMI — would have to be preserved as well to fill gaps in renewable energy supplies. "Let’s not kid ourselves that we can do it just with wind and solar," Mansoor cautioned. New nuclear power would also have to be available, he said.

In reply, Kortenhorst shifted the focus to the potential for customer-level energy efficiency and battery storage to back up intermittent supplies.

"I’m in a bit of a hurry," Kortenhorst said. "I’m not sure nuclear can move fast enough."

The mix of high hopes and contending strategies continued yesterday, with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, telling a virtual town hall meeting with dozens of advocacy organizations that Biden’s daunting goal of a zero-carbon power grid by 2035 might be too slow a pace. "We need to try to shoot for closer to 2030," said Castor (E&E Daily, Jan. 14).

"We’ve got to construct a modern electric grid here in America" that can create stronger links between the best renewable energy resources and urban centers, she added.

"Right off the bat we have to make the investments in clean energy through an infrastructure bill that is the cleanest and greenest ever enacted," Castor continued, after taking questions from representatives of Poder Latinx, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund and other organizations that favor a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

That followed a webinar yesterday by the Advanced Energy Economy, where its managing director and general counsel, Jeff Dennis, proposed a new clean energy agenda for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, particularly when Democrats gain an expected commission majority this summer.

"It is widely recognized that the transmission grid needs to expand and expand quickly" to link more renewable energy to urban centers, he said.

FERC should consider reviving 15-year-old federal authority — never implemented — intended to allow the commission to approve rights of way for transmission lines if states delayed them, but do it more strategically, he said. "I think there will be significant interest in doing that," Dennis said.

His strategy echoed advocacy earlier in the week from Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, which issued a report detailing how steep costs for connections to the interstate grid are stifling proposed wind and solar projects, wasting billions of consumer dollars a year when more expensive energy must be used (Energywire, Jan. 12).

In updating its 10-year-old order on grid planning, Order 1000, FERC needs to take a hard look at how the grid is moving fast toward clean energy sources and how customer demand for zero-carbon power is growing, according to the report. Then the commission should lead grid organizations in that direction, said a study co-author, Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies LLC.

"Our system is broken," he said in an interview. "It should be based on the realities of what resources are out there and where they are needed."

But another option appeared yesterday in new research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Depending on advances in linking electric vehicles and "smart" buildings to the grid, these customer-side resources could be a key solution to managing wind and solar variations, adding energy or reducing demand through advanced controls, the NREL report said.

Timothy Brennan, a senior fellow at the Resources for the Future think tank, said sophisticated minute-by-minute electricity controls — on refrigerators, air conditioners, space and water heating, and EV chargers — could help match fluctuations in solar and wind energy supply.

Ideally, the changes may be too brief for consumers to notice, or users might be compensated by savings in energy use, he said in a research paper published this month. One key open question is whether utility companies should be permitted to offer that service or if other private companies should fill the role, he added.

Fossil fuel groups weigh in

At his fireside chat Tuesday with RMI’s Kortenhorst, Mansoor said wind and solar installations would have to grow by three or four times the past decade’s rate to keep the U.S. on a path toward a near-zero-carbon emissions economy by midcentury.

But he stressed grid operators don’t yet have the tools to manage such complex grid operations, and that must be fixed. Customers who heat with electricity and own two EVs "don’t want to lose their electricity for two days."

At another briefing yesterday, EPRI’s principal technical leader, Joseph Stekli, projected that while costs of solar electricity will continue to fall, the year-over-year cost reductions will slow down on a dollars-per-megawatt basis.

Moreover, the value of solar and wind on the grid declines as the density of renewable energy projects increases: When sunshine and wind are at peaks, more renewables create more excess supply that can’t be used, unless it is put into storage batteries or can be shipped out over transmission links.

"We need to make sure the most viable storage options are considered" in designing hybrid renewable and battery installations that work together, said Michael Bolen, EPRI program manager for solar.

Not to be left out, the American Gas Foundation released a new study yesterday: "Building a Resilient Energy Future: How the Gas System Contributes to US Energy System Resilience." The report argues that natural gas is a vital backbone source for electricity generation.

Count on Coal, an advocacy organization for hard-pressed coal power plants, continued its defense with a dig at renewable power and a warning to the incoming Biden administration yesterday. "The last thing American consumers want or need is a grid that is increasingly expensive, unreliable and unavailable," the group said.

But that was a lonely voice as various clean energy groups clamor for early action by the Biden administration. Yesterday, the Energy Storage Association announced that former U.S. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, Biden’s choice to be national climate adviser, will keynote its Feb. 3 policy forum on the role of battery storage as a clean energy enabler.