'A lot that is still not understood'
Asked whether his ideas need detailed studies, given the complexity of the grid, Wellinghoff said the technology is already moving that way.
"I think it's being settled by the digital grid moving forward," he said. "We are going to have to go to a smart grid to get to this point I'm talking about. But if we don't go to that digital grid, we're not going to be able to move these renewables, anyway. So it's all going to be an integral part of operating that grid efficiently."
In response to Wellinghoff's comments, James Owens, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an association of shareholder-owned utilities, issued this statement: “While our industry is making very major strides in expanding energy efficiency and the use of renewables, we’ll still have to add new baseload generation capacity to help meet the growth in demand for electricity. As we intensify the transition to a low-carbon future, we will need to have all generation options on the table, including advanced new nuclear, advanced clean coal with carbon capture and storage, as well as natural gas.”
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. reported last week on challenges in integrating a twentyfold expansion of renewable power into the nation's electricity networks but did not specifically address whether additional baseload generation would be needed. A spokesperson for NERC did not have an immediate response to Wellinghoff's comments.
Revis James, who directs energy technology assessment for the Electric Power Research Institute, said recently that it is not clear how fast renewable energy can be added without creating reliability issues. "No one knows what the magic number is," he said. "Are we moving too fast? On the policymakers' side, there's a lot that is not still understood about the implications of a large share of renewables."
Impact on nuclear power
Wellinghoff's statement – if it reflects Obama administration policy – would be a huge blow to the U.S. nuclear power industry, which has been hoping for a nuclear "renaissance" based on the capacity of nuclear reactors to generate power without greenhouse gas emissions.
Congress created significant financial incentives to encourage the construction of perhaps a half-dozen nuclear plants with innovative designs, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu has promised Congress to accelerate awards of federal loan guarantees for some of these proposals.
But a major expansion in U.S. nuclear energy would require a high effective tax on carbon emissions from coal plants, or an extended loan guarantee and tax incentive policy, according to the Congressional Research Service and outside consultants. The leading energy bills before Congress do not provide more loan guarantees.
"If expansion of nuclear plants is the nation's policy, then Congress has to recognize that the U.S. energy companies cannot afford to do this alone," said Paul Genoa, policy director for the Nuclear Energy Institute, in a recent interview.
"The president needs to show his cards on nuclear energy," said energy consultant Joseph Stanislaw, a Duke University professor. "He cannot keep this industry, which must make investments with a 50-year or longer horizon, in limbo for much longer."
"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 kilowatt – more 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."