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No, the Green New Deal won’t threaten the grid

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler used an old trope about grid reliability to criticize the Green New Deal on ABC.

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler (left) criticized the Green New Deal for not adequately addressing grid stability.
Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler (left) criticized the Green New Deal for not adequately addressing grid stability.
ABC News
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who is inching closer toward taking over the agency in a permanent capacity, took aim at the Green New Deal this week.

The Senate invoked cloture Thursday evening to advance Wheeler’s nomination to become the full administrator of the EPA. Speaking with Devin Dwyer on ABC News Live, Wheeler said the resolution proffered by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) overlooks energy stability, with major implications for health.

“I am concerned that they really don’t seem to value a stable electricity source, grid reliability. For human health and the environment here at the agency, I have to be very concerned about that because it’s the electricity system that supplies our drinking water system and runs it,” Wheeler said. “It’s not really addressed in their Green Deal.”

Wheeler is right that electricity is critical for health and the environment, and drinking water is an excellent example. After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, knocking down 80 percent of the island’s utility poles, safe drinking water was one of the first things compromised. The ensuing blackout became the largest in US history and the official death toll from the storm reached 2,975. Without power, critical medical equipment went idle, refrigerators for essential medicines like insulin went silent, and the pumps that provided clean water shut off.

But his notion that the Green New Deal would threaten the stability of the power grid doesn’t hold water. The proposal calls for a vast deployment of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power alongside a rapid drawdown of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas in order to make the United States carbon neutral by 2030.

Presumably, Wheeler’s reasoning is that more intermittent energy sources like wind and solar on the grid will make it harder to keep the lights on and keep water treatment plants running.

But real-world evidence doesn’t support this claim, which is oft made by defenders of fossil fuels. Germany, for example, gets about 38 percent of its electricity from renewables, with about half of that coming from wind and solar power. Renewable generation can occasionally provide 100 percent of the country’s electricity needs. At the same time, Germany also has one of the most stable power grids in Europe.

Researchers have found that renewables like wind and solar power can also complement each other throughout the day and over the course the year to reduce the need for energy storage and backup generation. Power analysts have also determined that the US grid can decarbonize by 80 percent using just existing technology.

And again, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is a case in point. Some of the medical facilities that did stay online after the storm drew on photovoltaic panels and batteries built on microgrids.

Wheeler’s comments, however, are in line with the Trump administration’s flagrant ambitions to boost fossil fuels. Officials have invoked the idea of “stable” electricity as pretext for bailing out money-losing coal power plants. However, as we learned in the bitter cold snaps this year and the year before, coal, oil, natural gas, and even nuclear plants can suffer reliability issues as temperatures reach extremes.

As for the things that do pose a threat to grid stability, the infrastructure exposed to storms, fires, and heat stands to be the bigger vulnerability. “By far the most important environmental factor affecting [electricity transmission, storage, and distribution] infrastructure needs now and going forward is global climate change,” the US Department of Energy noted in its 2015 Quadrennial Energy Review.