Skip to main content

Jon Wellinghoff Light and Dark

06 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.


Brian Mays said…
Hmm ... it seems to me that this "new paradigm" that Wellinghoff talks about is old news. It has been tried before.

It has been tried in California, where they have exported much of their heavy industry, they have refused to build new "traditional" baseload plants (i.e., coal and nuclear -- although they are not to pure as to refuse to import increasing amounts of coal- and nuclear-generated electricity from across the border), and they have heavily emphasized efficiency, conservation, and electricity generation from renewables and natural gas. Today, California is a poster child for how not to run an economy. After they were so brutally abused by Enron less than ten years ago, how can anyone take California's energy policies seriously?

It has been tried in Germany, where they have been actively encouraging renewable energy via feed-in tariffs (an example of "what the markets will do" when the playing field is not level because of government fiat). The result? Earlier this year, the German environmental minister was on record saying that Germany needs to build at least eight new very large coal plants. They need new power, and they need "baseload" power, in spite of the contributions of conservation, renewables, distributed energy, and all of the other government-mandated energy "solutions" that they have tried.

Based on experience, I'd say that Wellinghoff's "new paradigm" is dead on arrival, and it is a dangerous "paradigm" unless your purpose is to either wreck the economy or enrich the coal and natural gas producers (as part of the processes of directing much less money to the renewable energy lobby). In any case, "rational" is not a word that I would choose to describe this scheme.

My question is this: when is the Obama administration finally going to rein in this guy? He's obviously out of touch with reality and is beginning to become an embarrassment to the administration.
anony-Mouse said…
THe point is that Mr. Wellinghoff has no idea what he speaks about, and what he is charged with directing.

Electricity distribution grid requires the frequency to be kept constant, thus electricity in has to be equal consumption at all times. The only way we figured out as of yet is to have a strong "baseload" component with enough inertia in turbines and generators to absorb quick changes, and ~20% additional capacity in spinning reserves, which can be quickly ramped up if needed.

Mr Wellinghoff seems to demonstrate lack of technical insight into reality of what he should be responsible for, arguing instead about plausibility of some fairy tales scenarios.

I would not be surprised if his next suggestion was a DC system which has no frequency to worry about in the first place.

Popular posts from this blog

A Billion Miles Under Nuclear Energy (Updated)

And the winner is…Cassini-Huygens, in triple overtime.

The spaceship conceived in 1982 and launched fifteen years later, will crash into Saturn on September 15, after a mission of 19 years and 355 days, powered by the audacity and technical prowess of scientists and engineers from 17 different countries, and 72 pounds of plutonium.

The mission was so successful that it was extended three times; it was intended to last only until 2008.

Since April, the ship has been continuing to orbit Saturn, swinging through the 1,500-mile gap between the planet and its rings, an area not previously explored. This is a good maneuver for a spaceship nearing the end of its mission, since colliding with a rock could end things early.

Cassini will dive a little deeper and plunge toward Saturn’s surface, where it will transmit data until it burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. The radio signal will arrive here early Friday morning, Eastern time. A NASA video explains.

In the years since Cassini has launc…

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.


The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.

What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…

Why Nuclear Plant Closures Are a Crisis for Small Town USA

Nuclear plants occupy an unusual spot in the towns where they operate: integral but so much in the background that they may seem almost invisible. But when they close, it can be like the earth shifting underfoot., the Gannett newspaper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley in New York, took a look around at the experience of towns where reactors have closed, because the Indian Point reactors in Buchanan are scheduled to be shut down under an agreement with Gov. Mario Cuomo.

From sea to shining sea, it was dismal. It wasn’t just the plant employees who were hurt. The losses of hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in payrolls and millions in property taxes depressed whole towns and surrounding areas. For example:

Vernon, Vermont, home to Vermont Yankee for more than 40 years, had to cut its municipal budget in half. The town closed its police department and let the county take over; the youth sports teams lost their volunteer coaches, and Vernon Elementary School lost th…