Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jon Wellinghoff is Blind

Via Joe Romm, some comments from the Obama Administration's pick for head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff:

“I think [new nuclear expansion] is kind of a theoretical question, because I don’t see anybody building these things, I don’t see anybody having one under construction,” Wellington said.

Building nuclear plants is cost-prohibitive, he said, adding that the last price he saw was more than $7,000 a kilowattmore expensive than solar energy. “Until costs get to some reasonable cost, I don’t think anybody’s going to [talk] that seriously,” he said. “Coal plants are sort of in the same boat, they’re not quite as expensive.”

I guess that Mr. Wellinghoff is blind, because anyone who has actually been paying attention knows that there's gonna be construction starting soon right here in the good ol' USA:
Southern Nuclear has given notice to its main contractors to proceed towards two new reactors at Vogtle. Permissions already in place allow some construction work to begin.
And as Dan Yurman reported here, Progress Energy in Florida and NRG in Texas are moving in the same direction. But this is symptomatic of much more serious problems with Mr. Wellinghoff: from all appearances, he has absolutely no idea what he's talking about.

This quotation gets at the heart of what I mean:

“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.”He added, “People talk about, ‘Oh, we need baseload.’ It’s like people saying we need more computing power, we need mainframes. We don’t need mainframes, we have distributed computing.”

The technology for renewable energies has come far enough to allow his vision to move forward, he said. For instance, there are systems now available for concentrated solar plants that can provide 15 hours of storage.

“What you have to do, is you have to be able to shape it,” he added. “And if you can shape wind and you can effectively get capacity available for you for all your loads.

“So if you can shape your renewables, you don’t need fossil fuel or nuclear plants to run all the time. And, in fact, most plants running all the time in your system are an impediment because they’re very inflexible. You can’t ramp up and ramp down a nuclear plant. And if you have instead the ability to ramp up and ramp down loads in ways that can shape the entire system, then the old concept of baseload becomes an anachronism.”

Wellinghoff is seriously confused, both in terms of the current status of renewable technology but also in that he's proposing technological frameworks that are currently wishful thinking. I'm not sure what he means by "shaping" wind, but he seems to be proposing making wind's serious inadequacies irrelevant by allowing energy providers to control end-use--an idea currently in vogue but whose popularity I am certain will disintegrate once it starts being implemented widely. The thing is, most (all?) qualified experts dispute the idea that "baseload is an anachronism." Intermittent generators just aren't dispatchable by definition, and once you get past the wishful thinking and do serious analysis, the barriers to making something like wind dispatchable prove much more forbidding than building new nuclear plants.

Here's a pertinent example of some people who don't share Welinghoff's vision: the authors of the DOE study that estimated that the US could generate 30% of its electricity from wind by 2030. As they concluded:
Wind power cannot replace the need for many “capacity resources,” which are generators and dispatchable load that are available to be used when needed to meet peak load. If wind has some capacity value for reliability planning purposes, that should be viewed as a bonus, but not a necessity. Wind is used when it is available, and system reliability planning is then conducted with knowledge of the ELCC of the wind plant. Nevertheless, in some areas of the nation where access to generation and markets that spans wide regions has not developed, the wind integration process could be more challenging.
However, Mr. Wellinghoff's position makes more sense when we consider his background:
Chairman Wellinghoff is an energy law specialist with more than 30 years experience in the field. Before joining FERC, he was in private practice and focused exclusively on client matters related to renewable energy, energy efficiency and distributed generation. While in the private sector, Chairman Wellinghoff represented an array of clients from federal agencies, renewable developers, and large consumers of power to energy efficient product manufacturers and clean energy advocacy organizations.

While in private practice, Chairman Wellinghoff was the primary author of the Nevada Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) Act. The Nevada RPS is one of the two states to receive an “A” rating by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In addition, he worked with clients to develop renewable portfolio standards in six other states. The Chairman is considered an expert on the state renewable portfolio process and has lectured extensively on the subject in numerous forums including the Vermont Law School.

Chairman Wellinghoff’s priorities at FERC include opening wholesale electric markets to renewable resources, providing a platform for participation of demand response and other distributed resources in wholesale electric markets including energy efficiency and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and promoting greater efficiency in our nation’s energy infrastructure through the institution of advanced technologies and system integration.
So the head of FERC is not merely ignorant (not knowing that the new nuclear projects are breaking ground is totally inexcusable for someone in his position), but he's a technological fantasist who's determined to pick energy winners before they've been tested in the real world. It's rather akin to trying to pick the winning racehorse before it has been born. It makes me glad that FERC isn't powerful enough to actually implement most of this; at this rate, let's hope it stays that way.


Tom Blees said...

I'm shock and saddened to see this degree of cluelessness from someone in such a position. Look at what Germany's accomplished after 25 years of heavy promotion of wind and solar, as they prepare to shut down their nuclear plants as a matter of policy: They have fully 38% of the world's installed wind power and an astounding half of all solar generation capacity. Yet wind provides just 7% of their electrical needs (mostly in January), and a laughable 0.5% comes from solar, while jacking up their electrical rates with feed-in tariffs to the point where major industries that use lots of electricity are contemplating fleeing the country. Oh, and as they prepare to shut down their perfectly good nuclear power plants (even as they hypocritically buy nuclear-produced electricity from France), they're starting to build a bunch of coal-fired plants. Thanks a lot, Germany, for showing us just what's possible when environists take over a government (environmentalists without the mental part).

If you want to see the numbers crunched to show just how delusional this guy is, go to and download David MacKay's excellent book. Or go to and read the first part of mine. There are ways to have clean energy, but this guy isn't going to take us there.

Notice, importantly, that he said "no NEW nuclear or coal plants." Does this mean he's happy just letting existing coal plants keep running? If so, the man is delusional on yet another front.

Sovietologist said...

I do think it is perhaps the biggest misconception in the current energy conversation that our goal needs to be "build as much renewable generations as quickly as possible?", rather than "how do we shut down all these coal plants?" Germany is finding out the hard way that these two questions don't have the same answer.

DV8 2XL said...

Looks like we have finally got a quote that we can match up against the tiresome 'too cheap to meter' one that we have gotten rubbed in our collective faces for years.

This statement was a huge error and has put a big stick in our hands. There is no way the renewable supporters can make this go away.