FERC’s Wellinghoff bloviates on wind

Jon Wellinghof, the latest chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is, by his own words, a doofus. As reported in Power News this week, Wellinghoff said the U.S. may never need new baseload electric generating capacity.

 Why? Because wind will be so cheap it will get sent out first in an economic dispatch regime. He told a U.S. Energy Association press event in Washington, “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 this first.”

 Hogwash. First, wind simply isn’t dispatchable. Unlike coal, gas, nuclear, and hydro, no power system can count on when wind power will be available. Even if it were free (which is a joke), wind wouldn’t be at the top of a dispatch list. Also, there’s no evidence that I’ve seen that wind will ever be “the cheapest thing to do.” Even if it were reliable, wind would not rank on the top of the order for sending out power.

 Wind, by all accounts, has a capacity factor of about 30%. That means that it isn’t available 70% of the time. On top of that, the 30% of the time that wind power is available isn’t very predictable. That’s not a recipe for baseload dispatch.

 According to an account in The Energy Daily, Wellinghoff said, “I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism. If you can shape your renewables, you don’t need fossil fuel or nuclear plants to run all the time.”

 That is, to put it gently, nuts. How does a power system “shape” renewables? Beats the heck out of me. As for nukes, regulators have determined (probably correctly) that they must run 24/7. So that’s mandatory baseload, something that no amount of wind can back out of the dispatch order.

 Former energy secretary Jim Schlesinger and my long-time friend Bob Hirsch, a former federal energy agency renewables manager, noted in an Washington Post op-ed last week, “Why are we ignoring things we know? We know that the sun doesn’t always shine and that the wind doesn’t always blow. That means that solar cells and wind energy systems don’t always provide electric power. Nevertheless, solar and wind energy seem to have captured the public’s support as potentially being the primary or total answer to our electric power needs.”

 That’s an apt observation and critique. And Wellinghoff, an acolyte of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a former Nevada consumer advocate, and author of the state’s renewable portfolio standard, seems oblivious to the limitations of wind.

 Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), representing a state with little wind resources, said, “To suggest a few sources of alternative energy alone could handle our future energy needs – in place of new nuclear or coal plants – defies reality.” He’s got it about right. There’s nothing wrong with wind. But it’s role in future electric generation is fundamentally limited. If Jon Wellinghof doesn’t understand that, he needs to go back to “Power 101” class

 In the 1980s, there was a great debate about building new electric generating capacity. At the time, the advocates of peaking power – primarily the natural gas and independent energy sector – argued that the nation didn’t really need new baseload capacity. They were right. Baseload was overbuilt.

 But today, it’s clear that baseload is running short. Wind won’t cut it. Jon Wellinghoff simply doesn’t know about which he is bloviating.