Tuesday, May 19, 2009

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.