Jon Wellinghoff, Obama’s energy futurist
The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is committed to renewable energy.
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That might sound surprising. Yet, with coal and nuclear power plants costing billions of dollars – and raising environmental issues such as climate change and radioactive waste – others also see renewable power as the low-cost option.Skip to next paragraph
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Wellinghoff’s outspoken views have irritated some since his March selection as chairman.
Last month, for instance, he drew fire from nuclear-energy boosters in Congress after he characterized as “an anachronism” the idea of meeting future US power demand by building large new coal-fired and nuclear power plants.
“You don’t need fossil fuel or nuclear [plants] that run all the time,” Wellinghoff told reporters at a US Energy Association Forum last month. Then he added: “We may not need any, ever.”
That set off a salvo from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a staunch nuclear-power advocate. “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,” he said in a statement.
But to others, Wellinghoff is the epitome of what the US needs: a public servant zeroed in on energy security, the environment, efficiency, and keeping energy costs down.
“Wellinghoff has been a longtime supporter of efficiency and consumer interests,” says Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, an energy advocacy group. “I would call him a visionary. He’s not just content with the status quo.”
In Wellinghoff’s vision of the future, where the cost of carbon dioxide emissions is added to the price of coal-fired power plants and natural-gas turbines, it may be less expensive for consumers to set their appliances to avoid buying power at peak times. Or they may choose to buy power from a collection of microturbines, fuel cell, wind, solar, biomass, and ocean power systems.
“We’re going to see more distributed generation – and we’re already starting to see that happen,” Wellinghoff says. “Not only renewable generation like photovoltaic [panels] that people put on their homes and businesses, but also fossil-fuel systems like combined heat and power,” called cogeneration units.
To coordinate and harmonize this fluctuating phalanx of power sources, customers will need to know and be able to respond to the price of power, Wellinghoff says. They will also need a new generation of appliances that switch off automatically to balance power supply and demand peaks.
But there are huge challenges with a power grid that provides energy from a mix of wind, solar, and other renewable power.
“You’re going to have to upgrade this whole grid [along the East Coast], he says. “You can’t just move [wind and wave power] from offshore to load centers onshore without looking at the effect on reliability – Florida
As the percentage of renewable power rises toward 20 to 25 percent of grid power from around 3 percent today, there must be a backup to fill gaps when intermittent winds stop blowing or the sun doesn’t shine.
In a decade or more from now, Wellinghoff, says millions of all-electric or plug-in electric-gas hybrid vehicles could plug into the grid and supply spurts of power to fill in for dipping wind and solar output.
“There are new technologies,” he says, “that in the next three to five years will advance the grid to a new level.”
Gesturing to a drawing board on the wall, he hops up from his chair, his hands flicking across a sketch of the eastern half of the US with power lines fanning out from the Plains states to the East Coast.