MIT Study on “Future of the Electric Grid” Highly Problematic

Posted By Lowell F. on March 29th, 2012

A recent study by MIT, entitled “The Future of the Electric Grid,” finds that “integrating more renewables into the US grid will be costly and have unintended consequences, including potential for increased carbon emissions.” We find that this study is highly problematic, for a number of important reasons.

Before we get to our criticisms, here’s an excerpt from an analysis of this study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

[The MIT study] take[s] a near-term, incremental approach and look at the impact of variability on the power plants present on the system today in the context of the system as it is currently operated [instead of taking]… a long-term, system-wide view of the grid and…the full range of flexibility options to accommodate a large quantity of renewable electricity from variable sources…What the authors only mention briefly is that there are a host of other sources of flexibility that we can deploy as the share of renewables increases…The problem is that focusing on near term, incremental impacts of variable resources could incorrectly lead one to believe that while integration of variable generation brings with it discrete integration costs, integrating conventional units somehow does not.

NRDC’s criticisms are important, and we fully agree with them.  In addition, we read through the MIT study ourselves and found other problems, both of omission and commission, we believe are worth highlighting.

One issue that should certainly be noted is that the advisory committee members behind this report include numerous fossil fuel representatives, such as former U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston. Among other things, Johnston helped pass “the Deep Water Royalty Relief Act, a measure which has spurred a dramatic increase in deep water oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico,” and after his retirement from the U.S. Senate, served on the board of Chevron and as a lobbyist for the oil industry.

In addition to Johnston, the advisory board for this study includes: 1) a representative from Dominion Resources, which generates almost none of its electricity from renewable sources, and about half from coal; 2) a representative from American Electric Power, which generates two thirds of its electricity from coal; and 3) a representative from the Electric Power Research Institute, which has clearly had a less-than-positive view of clean energy in the past.

Not that it isn’t hypothetically possible for a panel led by fossil industry ringers to produce a fair, balanced report, but unfortunately, we don’t believe that this is one of those cases. A few other problems with this report include:

  • A failure to discuss the environmental costs of fossil fuels (e.g., a recent Harvard study indicated that the true cost of coal in the United States is around $500 billion per year, if you take into account “the multiple human health and environmental impacts of coal from mining to transport to combustion in coal power plants, and the waste stream that accompanies it.”)
  • A mention of subsidies only for clean energy, not for fossil fuels, even though fossil fuels historically have received many times more subsidies than solar, wind, etc.
  • No discussion whatsoever of the national security, economic, or health costs of fossil fuel reliance, even though these are enormous.
  • An explicit assumption that there will not be a carbon-constrained world, despite report after report indicating a pressing need for limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • A clearly biased/negative view of distributed generation, which is contrary to what many others believe.

With regard to the overall thrust of the MIT study, energy guru Amory Lovins‘ excellent article (A Farewell to Fossil Fuels: Answering the Energy Challenge), in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, is well worth quoting from:

Skeptics of solar and wind power warn of their fluctuating output. But the grid can cope. Just as it routinely backs up nonworking coal fired and nuclear plants with working ones, it can back up becalmed wind turbines or darkened solar cells with flexible generators (renewable or not) in other places or of other kinds, or with systems that voluntarily modulate demand. Even with little or no bulk power storage, diversified, forecastable, and integrated renewables can prove highly reliable.

Such integration into a larger, more diverse grid is how in 2010 Denmark had the capacity to produce 36 percent of its electricity from renewables, including 26 percent from wind (in an average wind year), and how four German states were 43–52 percent wind-powered. But U.S. and European studies have shown how whole continents could make 80 percent or more of their power renewably by operating existing assets differently within smarter grids, in markets that clear faster and serve larger areas.

Clearly, Amory Lovins does not take the pessimistic, narrow, non-visionary view of the MIT study. To the contrary, Lovins points to real-world success stories for integrating renewables efficiently and securely into national power grids. How did the authors of the MIT study miss what is so clearly visible to Amory Lovins and many others?

In general, we believe it’s fair to say that the MIT study emphasizes many of the supposed negatives of distributed power and of moving towards a clean energy-powered economy, but fails to mention almost any of the positives of doing so, let alone many of the negatives of fossil fuels to the economy, national security, and environment.  For whatever reason(s), the MIT study fails to look at the long-term potential of clean energy,  given what’s actually happening in the real world (e.g., rapidly falling prices for clean energy, massive amounts of capital flowing into cleantech, tremendous growth in generating capacity), and in general takes a pinched, pessimistic view of what is actually a burgeoning, exciting industry into which investment is pouring (what do the MIT authors know that Warren Buffett does not?).

The conclusion of all this? If you only look at the good sides of one industry (fossil fuels) and the “challenges” of the other (clean energy), and if you fail to think beyond the narrow paradigm you’re boxed into, then it’s not a big surprise that you end up with the Don Blankenship-Rex Tillerson-Aubrey McClendon worldview.  Perhaps it’s time for MIT to get the fossil folks off the panel and start over on this one.

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