Trump Administration Suppresses Landmark Grid Study that Boosted Renewables, Undercut Coal
The Trump administration has spent the last two years suppressing a landmark study by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that showed the potential of a national “supergrid” to jump-start the country’s use of solar and wind energy—to the detriment of the coal industry that Trump himself swore to protect when he turned the White House into his latest reality TV studio.
The Interconnections Seam 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,” InvestigateWest and The Atlantic report. “It was an elegant solution to a complicated problem.”
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But the results have gone through 18 rounds of revisions in the last two years, “and some advocates remain skeptical that the study will ever be released.”
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InvestigateWest opens its story at an expert meeting in Lawrence, Kansas in 2018, where research engineer Joshua Novacheck shared his findings. “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 publication writes. And sure enough, with then-deputy assistant energy secretary Catherine “Katie” Jereza in the audience for Novacheck’s presentation, her alarmed email to DOE headquarters had begun igniting an “internal firestorm” against the study before he’d even finished speaking.
“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,” writes reporter Peter Fairley. “And in doing so, they would set back America’s efforts to slow climate change.”
The study focused on the “nearly impermeable” disconnect between the separate, mammoth electricity grids that serve the eastern and western halves of the United States. “Only a little over one gigawatt can cross between them,” Fairley explains. “So 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 neighbour Nebraska.”
The division between the two “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.”
The Seams study made the case for upgrading the interties between the two grids, “but Jereza’s email put the study in trouble,” Fairley says. “There was some significant political blowback at the most senior levels of DOE as a result,” wrote NREL project leader Aaron Bloom, who’s since left NREL for a private sector position. “We hit a political trigger point.”
Ultimately, “the US$1.6-million study itself disappeared.,” InvestigateWest says. “NREL yanked the completed findings from its website and deleted power flow visualizations from its YouTube channel. An NREL document shows that Bloom and Novacheck expected to submit an article to a top grid engineering journal within six weeks after the Kansas event. That paper remains blocked two years later.”
There’s much more to this story! Read InvestigateWest’s full account here.