20 august 2020

Trump appointees short-circuited grid modernization to help the coal industry

Peter Fairley, InvestigateWest
August 20, 2020

This article is a collaboration between InvestigateWest and The Atlantic.

It was Aug. 14, 2018, and Joshua Novacheck, a 30-year-old research engineer for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was presenting the most important study of his nascent career. He couldn’t have known it yet, but things were about to go very wrong.

At a gathering of experts and policymakers in Lawrence, Kansas, Novacheck was sharing the results of the Interconnections Seam Study, better known as Seams. The Seams study demonstrated that stronger connections between the U.S. power system’s massive eastern and western power grids would accelerate the growth of wind and solar energy—hugely reducing American reliance on coal, the single biggest contributor to climate change, and saving consumers billions. It was an elegant solution to a complicated problem.

Democrats in Congress have recently cited NREL’s work to argue for billions in grid upgrades and sweeping policy changes. But a study like Seams was politically dangerous territory for a federally funded lab while coal-industry advocates—and climate deniers—reign at the White House. The Trump Administration has a long history of protecting coal companies and, unfortunately for Novacheck, a representative was sitting in the audience during the talk: Catherine “Katie” Jereza, then a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Electricity.

“There was some significant political blowback at the most senior levels of DOE [and]…we hit a political trigger point.” ~Aaron Bloom, NREL project leader

Jereza fired off an email to DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C. — before Novacheck had even finished speaking, according to sources who viewed the email — raising an alarm about Seams’ anti-coal findings. That email ignited an internal firestorm. According to interviews with five current and former DOE and NREL sources, supported by over 900 pages of documents and emails obtained by InvestigateWest through Freedom of Information Act requests and additional documentation from industry sources, Trump officials would ultimately block Seams from seeing the light of day. And in doing so, they would set back America’s efforts to slow climate change.

A nearly impermeable electrical “seam” divides America’s East and West power grids. These giant pools of alternating current on either side of the Rockies contain a total of 950 gigawatts of power generation by thousands of power plants. (A third grid serves Texas.) But only a little over 1 gigawatt can cross between them. Western-grid power plants in Colorado send bulk power more than 1,000 miles to California, for example, but merely a trickle across the seam to next-door neighbor Nebraska. That separation raises power costs, and makes it hard to share growing surpluses of environmentally friendly wind and solar power. And years of neglect have left the grids—and the few connections between them—overloaded and ill-prepared to transition to highly-variable renewable energy.


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