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FERC's Chairman Jon Wellinghoff on Baseload Capacity and Distributed/Centralized Generation

Jon Wellinghoff, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, made some interesting comments yesterday at a U.S. Energy Association forum. According to the NY Times, Wellinghoff believes that "no new nuclear or coal plants may ever be needed in the United States" and that "renewables like wind, solar and biomass will provide enough energy to meet baseload capacity and future energy demands." If only it were that simple...

Of the many things I disagreed with from Mr. Wellinghoff's statements, the comments on baseload capacity and the poor analogy of distributed generation are what stuck out most to me. From Wellinghoff:
"I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism," he said. "Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind's going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you'll dispatch that first."
That is not the complete definition of baseload. Baseload capacity also means reliable, constant power to meet the minimum load requirements. Wind, which is supposedly "going to be the cheapest thing to do," does not produce reliable, constant power. Here's what a recent NERC report titled "Accommodating High Levels of Variable Generation" had to say (p. iii):
As the level of variable generation increases within a Balancing Area, the resulting variability may not be manageable with the existing conventional generation resources within an individual Balancing Area alone. [In other words, when you throw enough variable resources into an area that already provides reliable power, the area may become unmanageable.] Base load generation may need to be frequently cycled in response to these conditions, posing reliability concerns as well as economic consequences. [Nevertheless...] if there is sufficient transmission, this situation can be managed by using flexible resources from a larger generation base, such as through participation in wider-area balancing arrangements or consolidation of Balancing Authorities.
How much transmission would be needed? Here's page 35 of the NERC report:
15,000 miles of new transmission lines at a cost of $80 billion will be needed to meet a 20% wind energy scenario in the Eastern Interconnection.
15,000 miles? That's almost twice the diameter of the Earth. The 20% wind scenario mentioned in the NERC report comes from this group which estimates that "229,000 MW of new wind capacity will be built by the year 2024, with 36,000 MW of new base load steam generation [just in the Eastern Interconnection]." Interesting how the study says that additional baseload generation is needed for new wind capacity to work, contrary to the FERC Chairman's statement. Here’s also what Sovietologist found in an EIA report that studied a 20% wind energy scenario:
Wind power cannot replace the need for many “capacity resources,” which are generators and dispatchable load that are available to be used when needed to meet peak load. If wind has some capacity value for reliability planning purposes, that should be viewed as a bonus, but not a necessity...
Pretty much sums it up to me. Here's the other comment from Mr. Wellinghoff that I disagreed with most:
"People talk about, 'Oh, we need baseload.' It's like people saying we need more computing power, we need mainframes. We don't need mainframes, we have distributed computing."
As Rod Adams already noted, we have "centralized servers, routing hubs, [and] switches" in order to have "distributed" personal computers. The electric grid needs a lot of hardware to move electrons as well, and unless we can make electricity travel through the air, the electric grid will always be this way. And is Mr. Wellinghoff saying that renewables are distributed?

My understanding is that distributed generation means "on-site generation" which "reduces the amount of energy lost in transmitting electricity because the electricity is generated very near where it is used." Well, according to FERC's sister organization NERC (pdf, p.ii),
fuel availability for variable resources often does not positively correlate with electricity demand, either in terms of time of use/availability or geographic location... Only seven percent of the U.S. population inhabits the top ten states for wind potential.
That doesn't sound like distributed generation to me. In fact, it sounds like variable renewables will be more "centralized" than baseload coal or nuclear plants because the baseload plants can be built close to the cities/demand.

I highly recommend anyone and everyone to check out the latest NERC report (pdf) I mentioned above if they want to know how to accommodate more wind and solar renewables. The report finds that it's not as easy and cheap as the Chairman would like to believe and the report asks more questions than gives answers.

One more thing, if one of the US' and world's goals is to reduce emissions while maintaining our style of living, nuclear energy will have to be included in the mix. Independent analyses show that any credible initiative to reduce carbon emissions will require additional nuclear generating capacity. This fact is universally recognized by policy organizations at both ends of the political spectrum, national scientific organizations, independent consulting firms and government agencies around the world. Examples include the International Energy Agency, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, EIA's Analyses of the Lieberman-Warner legislation, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, McKinsey & Company and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Please be sure to check out these blogger's thoughts on Jon Wellinghoff's comments as well: Sovietologist at Blogging About the Unthinkable, Rod Adams at Atomic Insights, Natalie Wood at Clean Energy America, Carter Wood at NAM, Keith Johnson at WSJ and Brad Peck at ChamberPost. Also, Susan McGinnis on her show, The Energy Report at CleanSkiesTV, asked some challenging questions to the Chairman yesterday that is definitely worth viewing.

Update: Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat weighed in as well.


Ioannes said…
So Dave, with all due respect, to whom will President Obama listen? Jon Wellinghoff or NEI? Truthfully, I really hope you folks at NEI can work with this Administration and talk some sense into its head. I'll pray for that, too. But sadly, my faith is lacking not in you but in the Administration.
Anonymous said…
Jon Wellinghoff is a lawyer by training. This shows why he's completely clueless about how electrical power systems work. What a brilliant choice by the Obama administration to run FERC.
Anonymous said…
This is breathtaking.

Building nuclear plants is cost-prohibitive, he said, adding that the last price he saw was more than $7,000 a kilowatt -- more expensive than solar energy. "Chairman of FERC doesn't even know what a capacity factor is.
Charles Barton said…
I have decided that rather than complaining about Mr. Obama idiot energy advisors, I should offer the name of someone who could give Mr. Obama good advice and offer the country exceptional energy leadership. I have found someone who can do that. His name is Rod Adams!
Ioannes said…
I agree - Rod Adams would be IDEAL, but as I indicated over at your blogsite, I do hold much hope that'll happen. Guys, many of you wanted change. You didn't see pro-nuclear McCain as much of a change from Bush. So now you've gotten change. I really hope that NEI has some influence with the Administration and I pray for that to. Rod would be the BEST choice as DOE Secretary of FERC Chairman. He's sincere, he really cares about this country, and he isn't a selfish SOB. Those are all the reasons why he'll never make it in politics. :-(
Matthew66 said…
If you check FERC's website you'll see that they are not responsible for approving the construction of either coal or nuclear generation. They exercise responsibility for the interstate electricity transmission system and the interstate wholesale electricity market, oil pipelines, hydro electric facilities and some research. I don't think that there's much likelihood that major new hydro projects will be approved under Attorney Weillinghoff.

While Wellinghoff's opinions have generated some news, I doubt that his opinion will be sought when it comes to any area outside his responsibility.

Fortunately, the energy secretary, whose job it is to provide advice on the areas this blog is most concerned about, does seem to have a brain in his head.
Reindeargirl said…
I believe Wellinghoff was a Bush appointee to FERC. .
thank god someone is bringing a voice of reason and good sense to the FERC instead of just being a front for the rabid pro nuclear lobby/industry. As the Taliban marches closer and closer to Pakistan the catastrophic capabilities of nuclear become more and more real, and bring to light the reason the world needs to move away from this dangerous technology as fast as it can.
Anonymous said…
With renewables that are intermittent inevitably challenging the reliability of our grid, and a regulator responsible for regulatory oversight of reliability in the aftermath of the Northeast blackout of 2003, one must wonder how such irresponsible statements are tolerated when reliability is so important for the health and safety of the public.

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