rick perry

Energy Secretary Rick Perry (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The Department of Energy just issued a new study on alleged threats to the reliability of the electric grid. Maybe that sounds boring and arcane to you, but the backstory is actually quite gripping.

It’s a tale of high-level government corruption, an Inquisition-like atmosphere for career government scientists, and a sinister agenda that appears to be going off the rails, thanks partly to brave whistleblowers. In short, it has all the ingredients of what in normal times would’ve been a classic Washington scandal.

A bit of background: In April, Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered his staff to perform a study on how “continued regulatory burdens, as well as mandates and tax and subsidy policies, are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants.”

The term “baseload” refers to fossil fuel and nuclear power plants that can generate power continuously, unlike intermittent renewable sources that generate power only when the sun shines or the wind blows.

Cutting through the jargon, Perry ordered the study with a clear outcome in mind: to suggest that regulations on coal and government supports for clean energy were somehow destabilizing the U.S. power grid.

Evidently Perry doesn’t know much about advances in energy.

Technological change and market forces are making clean energy competitive with dirty fossil and nuclear energy, helped along by small tax credits (which are nonetheless dwarfed by much larger fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies).

Coal-fired power generation capacity has decreased, nuclear capacity has stagnated, and even natural gas capacity has barely ticked upward — while solar and wind capacity have grown by double digits. Plus, according to Perry’s own department, wind and solar now employ hundreds of thousands more Americans than older industries like coal.

Together with impressive advances in energy storage and smart grid technology, those trends are reducing the need for a large baseload capacity by making it possible to store renewable energy and distribute it wherever it’s needed.

Thankfully, career experts at the Energy Department don’t share Perry’s ignorance or bias. To prove it, they leaked a draft of their completed study before political appointees could alter or bury the results.

Unsurprisingly, they concluded that Perry’s starting premise was faulty — even as coal and nuclear plants are retired and the share of renewables in the grid grows, the grid has become more reliable. A number of independent experts share this conclusion.

Thanks to these brave whistleblowers, it’s easy to spot the subsequent meddling by political hacks.

And meddle they did. However, the degree of tampering was less than what it could have been had the earlier draft not been released. The overarching conclusion that the reliability of the grid has not been compromised — and in fact the grid has become more reliable — has not been altered.

But new policy recommendations have been added that betray an obvious political footprint. For instance, the revised version actually calls for easing pollution control requirements for coal-fired power plants — a backwards and potentially illegal move.

Another troubling recommendation calls for a mechanism to “compensate grid participants for services that are necessary to support reliable grid operations.” One such mechanism would be to add a premium to the price of coal power to pay for its supposed reliability — a ratepayer subsidy, in short, for struggling coal-fired power plants.

Still, it could’ve been much worse. The administration could’ve used the report to argue for eliminating “Renewable Portfolio Standards” (RPS) that mandate grid space for non-polluting energy.

RPS policies have been instrumental in driving the rapid growth of solar and wind energy in the U.S. in recent years — in fact, 29 states and D.C. have them. So it’s no surprise Perry’s fossil fuel allies are taking aim at them.

Months ago, when asked about whether he’d use the findings to block state RPS policies, Perry stooped to the lowest trick of contemporary American demagogues — invoking “national security.” That framing led some to worry that Perry was plotting an unprecedented federal intervention in state energy policy.

But thanks to career public servants who reported the facts and made it far more difficult for Perry’s cronies to manipulate or hide them, these destructive ideas didn’t make it into the report. That was no small risk in an administration that’s censored climate science on government websites and undermined the independent scientific boards that advise the EPA. (Not to mention that President Trump, EPA head Scott Pruitt, and Rick Perry himself all publicly deny much of the climate science — even though, in Perry’s case, his home state of Texas is presently underwater from Tropical Storm Harvey.)

The anonymous Energy Department whistleblowers are unsung heroes of our time, helping to derail part of the administration’s destructive agenda on energy and the environment.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.