A federal lab found a way to modernize the grid, reduce reliance on coal, and save consumers billions. Then Trump appointees blocked it.
On 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 policymakers 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.
Withholding NREL’s grid research is an example of what experts such as Arjun Krishnaswami, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls the “deep politicization” of DOE and its national labs under Donald Trump. At a moment when Europe, China, and others are racing ahead with advanced long-distance energy-transmission technologies, grid experts say that technology has gone nowhere in the United States—thanks to a failure of leadership in Washington.
A few weeks before the Kansas summit, things were looking good for the Seams study. On July 26, 2018, Bloom was center stage at a grid symposium in Iowa, releasing the study’s findings. In invitations to the event, the transmission enhancements Seams described had been billed as a “trillion-dollar economic event.” Bloom was on fire, speaking on his feet without notes for nearly two hours. “We’ve been imagining cleaner, bigger modern grids for about 40 years,” Bloom expounded, “and now is the time to make it happen.”
Bloom showed off his team’s sophisticated methodology using high-resolution video simulations. One simulation showed a hypothetical heatwave in August 2038, causing air conditioners to drive up power demand. As the rising sun swept across the U.S., yellow circles representing solar plants expanded. Surplus power from solar plants in the West flooded eastward, limiting the need for pricier and dirtier midwestern coal power. And as the sun set, the Midwest’s expansive wind farms began to spin, sending power westward and minimizing use of the West’s coal- and gas-fired generators.