The U.S. may never need new nuclear or coal-fired power plants because renewable energy and improved efficiency can meet future power demand, Jon Wellinghoff, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chair, last week reportedly said.

“I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism,” The New York Times  quoted Wellinghoff saying on April 22 at a U.S. Energy Association (USEA) press conference 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 that first.”

Wellinghoff added that nuclear power was “too expensive,” and that coal plants “are in the same boat,” Bloomberg reported. “The last price I saw for a nuke was north of $7,000 a kilowatt. That’s more expensive than a solar system,” Wellinghoff reportedly said.

The remarks—which some media alleged he had clearly been prepared to make—prompted praise from environmental groups. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) meanwhile hoped the remarks had been taken “out of context” because what the FERC chief had said was “breathtaking.”

“I’m afraid if we follow his advice we may be marching into madness,” Sen. Graham said in a statement. “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. I support capitalizing on all of our energy options, including deploying more alternative sources of energy. However, the public is ill-served when someone in such a prominent position suggests alternative energy programs are developed and in such a state that we should abandon our plans to build more plants.”

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) also promptly issued a statement, saying it was “deeply troubled” by the comments attributed to Wellinghoff.

“The Chairman’s remarks show a fundamental misunderstanding of vital steps needed to keep energy prices affordable, promote greater energy independence and reliability, and accelerate the deployment of new, advanced technologies that will help to address concerns about climate change,” it said.

The ACCCE noted that coal and nuclear currently provide more than 70% of the electricity generated in the U.S.— and this electricity is generated as baseload power. It added that the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects a nearly 25% increase in electricity demand by 2030—including a 16% increase in the use of coal—just to meet growing energy demand in the U.S.

 “EIA’s forecast assumes significant efforts to achieve greater energy efficiency, but clearly shows that a growing population and economy will be fueled by increased energy production,” it said. “While ACCCE supports all of our domestic energy resources to generate electricity (including renewables) and energy efficiency, the EIA analysis shows that new coal-fueled electricity generation will be an important component of meeting increased demand.”

Wellinghoff’s reported comments come only a month after President Obama formally designated him the chair of the federal commission. Wellinghoff had been serving as acting chair of the agency since January, after three years of service as a commissioner.

Before joining FERC, Wellinghoff—who holds a juris doctorate and a master of arts in mathematics—was in private practice related to renewable energy, energy efficiency, and distributed generation. He has 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.

He was also the primary author of the Nevada Renewable Portfolio Standard Act, and he worked with clients to develop renewable portfolio standards in six other states. Wellinghoff 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, his biography says.

Sources: The New York Times, Bloomberg, Sen. Lindsey Graham, ACCCE, FERC