I knew in my bones the moment I first heard about the recent winter weather-induced rolling blackouts in Texas that someone would use it as an opportunity to take politically motivated potshots at efforts to clean up the nation’s electricity system – facts be darned. It didn't take long.
Sure enough, within days of the blackouts, the Heritage Foundation was out criticizing the Obama administration’s “anti-energy agenda”, Rep. Joe Barton was extolling the virtues of natural gas, coal and nuclear plants over supposedly unreliable clean energy, and Rush Limbaugh was in full attack mode.
The truth of the matter was that the Texas blackouts were primarily triggered by weather-induced failures at precisely the coal plants that are lionized by Rep. Barton as the foundations of a “reliable” electricity system, coupled with high demand for electricity for space heating – not failures at the state’s wind energy plants. Indeed, the CEO of the Texas electric grid gave a special shout-out to the wind industry for providing important power during the morning peak demand period. In short, wind energy largely did its job in Texas. Fossil fuel generators did not do theirs.
The events in Texas highlight an argument that we’ve been making for some time – when it comes to protecting the reliability of the grid, bigger not only isn’t better, but it is often worse. The loss of energy from one wind turbine – or even one wind farm – has a far less severe impact on the grid than the unexpected loss of energy from a large “baseload” plant – much less the multiple plants that apparently went offline during the Texas crisis. At the same time, over-dependence on natural gas can lead to conflicts among the many users of gas when there’s not enough to go around – particularly during cold snaps (a phenomenon with which we in New England have direct and painfulexperience.)
The sustainable and reliable electric grid of the future will require reliance on a diversity of truly clean sources – distributed solar and wind, large wind farms and solar power plants and others – managed intelligently and backed up by small, strategically placed fossil fuel resources and, eventually, energy storage technologies. Relying on fossil fuel and nuclear “baseload” power plants is not something to be embraced, but rather it is something to be lived with only as long as it takes to transition to a cleaner, smarter, and more resilient electric grid.
All of this also brings me back – very belatedly – to President Obama’s commitment in his State of the Union address to obtain 80 percent of America’s energy from so-called “clean” sources – including natural gas and nuclear power – by 2035. My first reaction on hearing the news was to wonder, “why not 100 percent?” We clearly have the resources and technology to make a complete transition away from dirty coal and to do it on a 25-year timeline – a transition that would dramatically reduce America’s contribution to global warming.
On second thought, however, Obama’s mushing-together of renewable and what I’d call “perhaps-slightly-less-dirty” forms of energy is merely yet another example of the failure of the federal government to set a clear direction for the nation’s energy policy. Obama’s gambit clearly has political advantages – broadening the base of potential support for at least an incremental shift in energy policy. But as a vision for the future of the nation’s electricity system, it makes little sense.
The nation needs to choose between perpetuating the existing electricity system – with its massive reliance on large, centrally located baseload power plants – or moving toward a more supple and reactive grid that relies primarily on renewable energy, integrates distributed energy sources in an intelligent way, and manages electricity demand wherever possible. Massive nuclear and “clean coal” power plants – whatever their other merits or problems – are simply incompatible with that vision. America can do better.