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US EPA chief: Green New Deal fails to 'value' electric grid reliability

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler suggested May 23 that the progressive-backed Green New Deal and similar clean energy initiatives do not "value" electric grid reliability and therefore could endanger public health.

But renewable energy advocates quickly pushed back on that idea, pointing to a statement on the U.S. Department of Energy's website that cites studies showing the grid can accommodate "large penetrations of renewable power without sacrificing reliability."

After making similar comments at an infrastructure event a week earlier, Wheeler lobbed fresh criticism at the Green New Deal during a speech at the U.S. Energy Association's annual membership and public policy forum in Washington, D.C.

"Supporters of the Green New Deal or plans like it are not only oblivious to how far we've come, but also how far we're headed," Wheeler said, asserting that the U.S. has emerged from decades of dependence on foreign oil to become "a global leader in energy production and environmental protection."

"Rather than turn our backs on our energy resources, we want to see American energy power more homes and businesses throughout the world," Wheeler said.

Wheeler also linked grid resilience to the EPA's mission to protect public health, noting that one of the agency's top priorities during natural disasters is to help restore the flow of electricity. "That's what powers our drinking water systems," he said. "We need a reliable grid to provide clean water and medical care."

He further suggested that the increasing electrification of consumer products will make reaching aggressive clean energy targets even more difficult. "It won't be long before every facet of our lives will be digitized," he said. "This reality requires a constant supply of affordable energy delivered via a reliable grid."

The EPA did not respond to a request for further clarification May 23.

Before she was even sworn in to the U.S. House, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., began calling for the legislature to implement a Green New Deal. In early February, Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., released identical nonbinding resolutions in their respective chambers calling on Congress to act on the plan.

Among other things, the resolution promoted a "10-year national mobilization" to help the U.S. meet all of its electricity demand with "clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources," which would be a huge feat given that the country currently gets about 60% of its power from coal and natural gas. The proposal also sought to have the U.S. achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and called for jobs and healthcare guarantees for all Americans.

The U.S. Senate blocked a vote on a Green New Deal resolution March 26, reflecting GOP resistance to the proposal's sweeping energy targets and frustration from Democrats who wanted more time to debate and hold hearings on the measure. The House has yet to vote on the resolution.

Backers of the Green New Deal argue that climate science demands bold action to combat catastrophic effects tied to rising global temperatures, but critics contend its goals are not realistic or achievable. Viewed by many supporters as an aspirational document, the Green New Deal resolution does not detail specific policy steps and would require further legislation to implement.

Responding to Wheeler's earlier criticism, Markey noted in a May 16 tweet that the Green New Deal resolution does, in fact, specifically mention the electric grid. The resolution states that it would require "building or upgrading to energy-efficient, distributed, and 'smart' power grids, and ensuring affordable access to electricity."

When asked May 23 to respond to the idea that intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar could threaten grid reliability, an American Wind Energy Association spokesman cited a "frequently asked question" section of the DOE's website.

"Power grid operators have always had to deal with variability," the DOE's website says, noting that operators use interconnected power systems to access other forms of generation to accommodate changes in energy use and "continually turn generators on and off when needed to meet the overall grid demand."

Recent polling indicates that Republican support for the Green New Deal has decreased dramatically over a four-month span as the public has become more familiar with the resolution. A December 2018 survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that after providing a basic introduction, 81% of registered voters — including 64% of all Republicans — supported the Green New Deal. Another Yale survey conducted in April found that Democratic support for the Green New Deal remained high, while support among Republicans dropped by 20 percentage points.