One of the speakers at this year’s Nuclear Energy Assembly was Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He had stirred up a bit of controversy a couple of weeks ago by seeming to dismiss not only nuclear energy but all baseload energy in favor of, we think, smaller electricity grids that would be able to make do with a combination of renewable energy sources and natural gas. Here’s what he said about nuclear on Clean Skies TV (transcription: see here to be sure we haven’t misquoted):
From a cost standpoint, from the numbers I’ve seen, the plans [for nuclear energy] seem very costly. They look much more expensive than the alternatives, including not only renewables but also energy efficiency. Also combined heat and power and other distributed systems that would use natural gas. So, I think there are a whole plethora of alternatives that are less expensive that the nuclear alternative.
He was more explicit with the New York Times a little earlier:
"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."
We don’t agree with any of this, although it falls short of absolute hooey. (Baseload doesn’t just mean cheapest, though, it means most reliable, too: that part is hooey.)
So we were a little intrigued to see if Wellinghoff was going to wriggle away from his comments or, better, expand on them a bit so we can grasp his ideas about distributed systems.
Let’s let Greenwire’s Peter Behr take over the story:
But Nuclear Energy Institute President Marvin Fertel finally took up a microphone to ask what was arguably on everyone's mind in the room.
"I can't let this question go by," Fertel said, adding, "you've been quoted [as saying] you didn't see a need for baseload, either coal or nuclear, if we could just get distributed generation and renewables" added at a sufficient scale.
"I didn't say that," Wellinghoff replied. His point, he said, was that renewable energy, energy demand management, new technologies and other strategies could create "a new paradigm" for the industry.
"It is conceivable in this scenario that you may not need large central station plants," he said. "That's one scenario. That doesn't mean that scenario is in fact going to occur. But it is a scenario that is rational.
"There may be other scenarios that are rational, as well, including incorporating significant nuclear and coal into our system. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter what might be a rational or irrational scenario. What matters is what the markets will do."
We’ll go for wriggle.
We meant to find something a little less dour for Mr. Wellinghoff. But this seems to be his official portrait, so there he is.