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No new nuclear or coal plants may ever be needed in the United States, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said today.
"We may not need any, ever," Jon Wellinghoff told reporters at a U.S. Energy Association forum.
The FERC chairman's comments go beyond those of other Obama administration officials, who have strongly endorsed greater efficiency and renewables deployment but also say nuclear and fossil energies will continue playing a major role.
Wellinghoff's view also goes beyond the consensus outlook in the electric power industry about future sources of electricity. The industry has assumed that more baseload generation would provide part of an increasing demand for power, along with a rapid deployment of renewable generation, smart grid technologies and demand reduction strategies.
Jay Apt, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Electricity Industry Center, expressed skepticism about the feasibility of relying so heavily on renewable energy. "I don't think we're where Chairman Wellinghoff would like us to be," Apt said. "You need firm power to fill in when the wind doesn't blow. There is just no getting around that."
Some combination of more gas- or coal-fired generation, or nuclear power, will be needed, he said. "Demand response can provide a significant buffering of the power fluctuations coming from wind. Interacting widely scattered wind farms cannot provide smooth power."
Wellinghoff said renewables like wind, solar and biomass will provide enough energy to meet baseload capacity and future energy demands. Nuclear and coal plants are too expensive, he added.
"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."