Apart at the Seams: Trump Thugs Blocking Clean Energy Transmission

September 1, 2020


A revamped transmission grid could make renewable energy available from coast to coast, and greatly accelerate the transition to clean energy.
Naturally, the GOP is trying to sabotage it.

Longer piece, excerpted here.


In august 14, 2018, Joshua Novacheck, a 30-year-old research engineer for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was presenting the most important study of his nascent career. He couldn’t have known it yet, but things were about to go very wrong.

At a gathering of experts and policy makers in Lawrence, Kansas, Novacheck was sharing the results of the Interconnections Seam Study, better known as Seams. The Seams study demonstrated that stronger connections between the U.S. power system’s massive eastern and western power grids would accelerate the growth of wind and solar energy—hugely reducing American reliance on coal, the fuel contributing the most to climate change, and saving consumers billions. It was an elegant solution to a complicated problem.  

Democrats in Congress have recently cited NREL’s work to argue for billions in grid upgrades and sweeping policy changes. But a study like Seams was politically dangerous territory for a federally funded lab while coal-industry advocates—and climate-change deniers—reign in the White House. The Trump administration has a long history of protecting coal companies, and unfortunately for Novacheck, a representative was sitting in the audience during the talk: Catherine “Katie” Jereza, then a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Electricity.

Jereza fired off an email to DOE headquarters—before Novacheck had even finished speaking, according to sources who viewed the email—raising an alarm about Seams’ anti-coal findings. That email ignited an internal firestorm. According to interviews with five current and former DOE and NREL sources, supported by more than 900 pages of documents and emails obtained by InvestigateWest through Freedom of Information Act requests and by additional documentation from industry sources, Trump officials would ultimately block Seams from seeing the light of day. And in doing so, they would set back America’s efforts to slow climate change.

A nearly impermeable electrical “seam” divides America’s eastern and western power grids. These giant pools of alternating current on either side of the Rockies contain a total of 950 gigawatts of power generation by thousands of power plants. (A third grid serves Texas.) But only a little over one gigawatt can cross between them. Western-grid power plants in Colorado send bulk power more than 1,000 miles away to California, for example, but merely a trickle across the seam to its next-door neighbor Nebraska. That separation raises power costs, and makes it hard to share growing surpluses of environmentally friendly wind and solar power. And years of neglect have left the grids—and the few connections between them—overloaded and ill-prepared to transition to highly variable renewable energy.

The Seams study set out to determine whether uniting America’s big grids would pay. Seven aging converter stations presently mediate the meager power flows across the East-West seam. Should power companies simply rebuild these electrical “stitches,” or should they upgrade to longer or stronger links? Seams’ working hypothesis had been that upgrading might create a more reliable, sustainable, and affordable U.S. power system. The study’s results bore that hypothesis out.

But Jereza’s email put the study in trouble: Her concern reached the top ranks at NREL and DOE, according to an August 22, 2018, email from NREL project leader, Aaron Bloom, to top researchers and planners at U.S. power companies and grid operators. “There was some significant political blowback at the most senior levels of DOE as a result,” Bloom wrote. “We hit a political trigger point.” Bloom noted that the email had reached Dan Brouillette, who was second in command to then–Secretary of Energy Rick Perry at the time, and has since taken over his position.

The fallout was swift: The lab grounded Bloom and Novacheck, prohibiting them from presenting the Seams results or even discussing the study outside NREL. At the end of 2018, Bloom left NREL for the private sector. Dale Osborn, a retired grid-planning expert and a key adviser to Seams, says Bloom thought his career was over at NREL. “He told me, ‘I’ll never get a decent project again,’” Osborn recalls.

And the $1.6 million study itself disappeared. NREL yanked the completed findings from its website and deleted power-flow visualizations from its YouTube channel. An NREL document shows that Bloom and Novacheck expected to submit an article to a top grid-engineering journal within six weeks after the Kansas event. That paper remains blocked two years later.

Much more at the link.

6 Responses to “Apart at the Seams: Trump Thugs Blocking Clean Energy Transmission”

  1. teacherjohnj Says:

    There is one test that the Trump/ GOP applies to ALL things, and that is to ask the question, “Does this benefit the most people, do the best for future generations, or accomplish our goals as a team player on the world stage?” If the answer is, “yes”, then they are automatically against it. Because, if it isn’t “Trump” or money in the pockets of their donors, then it must “something, something, socialism!”
    On the other hand, if it inflicts harm on people, especially Democrats or people of color, it makes the boss smile. And that is the be-all and end-all of everything.
    Make the boss smile. At all costs.

    Vote as if your life depended on it. Organize others to vote and get out the vote.
    We have got to be rid of these parasites for good.

  2. It’s interesting that, as becomes evident later in the piece, a part of the Seams study which really ignited the pushback was the consideration of carbon pricing.

    If carbon emissions cost something, then utilities would start to care more and more about avoiding use of fossil fuel generation. The investment in grid modernization to shift power between regions then makes even more economic sense. That point was included in the presentation by Novacheck, and the response by higher-ups in the DOE was swift. A willingness to consider increasing incentives for emissions reductions in this way is evidently where Trump political appointees draw the line.

    You can find some other good recent discussion of carbon pricing policy in this recent NYTimes piece by economist Robert Frank:

    And this one in Vox by David Roberts, on using a ‘near-term to net zero’ to guide carbon pricing (in turn based on a recent Nature paper by Noah Kaufman):


  3. redskylite Says:

    Thugs, henchmen,vested interests and bigots – it’s an uphill climb, we can ill afford.


    “Only one in 10 energy suppliers globally has prioritised renewables over fossil fuels, the study finds.”


    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I’m (emotionally) banking on the generational change. As more and more tech developers, communities, graduates and workers are exposed to and think in terms of post-dinosaur energy technologies, the old presumptions are eroded away.

  4. neilrieck Says:

    Trump said he was going to save the coal industry. He neglected to tell his supporters that he was going to use THEIR MONEY to do so

  5. pendantry Says:

    And the $1.6 million study itself disappeared. NREL yanked the completed findings from its website and deleted power-flow visualizations from its YouTube channel.


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