Travis Fisher, a Trump political appointee in the Department of Energy, wrote a 2015 report for the Institute for Energy Research that called clean energy policies “the single greatest emerging threat” to the nation's electric power grid, and a greater threat to electric reliability than cyber attacks, terrorism or extreme weather.
Fisher is now leading up a controversial grid study ordered by Sec. of Energy Rick Perry under the pretense of ensuring the long-term reliability of the nation's electricity supply. If Fisher's past writings on the topic are any indication, the forthcoming DOE study is sure to be a thinly veiled attack on renewable energy aimed at propping up outdated coal and nuclear power plants that can't compete in today's electricity market.
Rick Perry's grid study sounds strikingly similar to the one Travis Fisher wrote for fossil fuel interests in 2015.
In his February 2015 report for the Institute for Energy Research (IER), Fisher attacked wind and solar power as “unreliable” sources of electricity. That same year, IER and its lobbying arm, the American Energy Alliance (AEA), together received millions of dollars from foundations affiliated with the Koch brothers, who have bankrolled an all out campaign to roll back state and federal clean energy policies.
In a 2016 bankruptcy filing, coal producer Peabody Energy also disclosed that it contributed $50,000 to IER in 2015. Fisher wrote in his 2015 IER report:
“The single greatest threat to reliable electricity in the U.S. does not come from natural disturbances or human attacks. Rather, the host of bad policies now coming from the federal government—and unfortunately from many state governments—is creating far greater and more predictable problems with grid reliability.”
He also offered this overview:
“New stresses on the electricity delivery system are coming primarily from two types of policies: 1) Regulations that directly shut down reliable sources of electricity, such as coal and nuclear power, and 2) Subsidies and mandates that force increased amounts of unreliable sources of electricity on the grid, such as wind and solar power, and undermine the normal operation of reliable power plants. Together, these two types of policies create a much less reliable grid and increase the chances of a major blackout.”
A strikingly similar narrative appeared in the memorandum from Perry, who also serves on President Trump's National Security Council, which ordered a new DOE study on grid reliability be prepared in just 60 days:
“Baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning electric grid. We are blessed as a nation to have an abundance of domestic energy resources, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric, all of which provide affordable base load power and contribute to a stable, reliable and resilient grid. Over the last few years, however, grid experts have expressed concerns about the erosion of critical baseload resources.
Specifically, many have questioned the manner in which baseload power is dispatched and compensated. Still others have highlighted the diminishing diversity of our nation's electric generation mix, and what that could mean for baseload power and grid resilience. This has resulted in part from regulatory burdens introduced by previous administrations that were designed to decrease coal-fired power generation. Such policies have destroyed jobs and economic growth, and they threaten to undercut the performance of the grid well into the future.
Finally, analysts have thoroughly documented the market-distorting effects of federal subsidies that boost one form of energy at the expense of others. Those subsidies create acute and chronic problems for maintaining adequate baseload generation and have impacted reliable generators of all types.”
Perry's memorandum included a specific order to examine, “The extent to which continued regulatory burdens, as well as mandates and tax and subsidy policies, are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants.” Perry's words since his memorandum serve as a further reminder of the undue influence of IER and AEA over the Trump administration's energy policies, made possible by AEA's loyal support for Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Perry recently revealed the Trump administration's half-baked and “highly classified” plan to preempt state and local energy policies in the name of national security.
Travis Fisher Targeted Clean Energy
The clean energy policies that Fisher targeted for repeal in his 2015 study for IER provide some clues about the possible identity of the “mandates and tax and subsidy policies” to which Perry made vague reference in his memo. These included a mix of state and federal policies designed to increase the use of renewable energy, as well as reduce carbon dioxide and mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Fisher specifically recommended that policymakers repeal:
• The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan and Mercury and Air Toxics Standards
• The federal Production Tax Credit for wind power
• State renewable energy standards
• Net metering incentives for rooftop solar
These are the sort of clean energy policies that have long been targeted for repeal by IER and AEA and their backers in the fossil fuel industry. Beyond Capitol Hill, a similar study with DOE's stamp could reignite failed attacks against renewable energy policies in states like Ohio, where IER and AEA's misleading reports have failed the smell test.
Fisher also referenced “bureaucratic hurdles” at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which he claimed has contributed to closure of “reliable” nuclear power plants. He pointed to the NRC as a factor in the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, but failed to mention the plant had been plagued by problems in recent years, including a cooling tower collapse and radioactive tritium leak.
Despite all the doomsday scenarios of electricity blackouts thrown into Travis Fisher's 2015 grid study for IER, he never named a single example where one of these clean energy policies actually caused the lights to go out. Most of these policies had been on the books for years, without causing the sorts of blackouts that Fisher predicted for the near future. Real world experience has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that grid operators and utilities can comply with clean energy policies, while also providing a reliable supply of electricity.
After all, a total of 29 states have renewable energy standards and 39 states have net metering on the books. The Production Tax Credit for wind power has been around since 1992. Utilities have already been complying with the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. During the 1970's, electric utilities like American Electric Power ran ads that made the same sort of “doomsday predictions” about the Clean Air Act. In February 2015, the EPA responded to similar attacks on the Clean Power Plan by pointing out that “at no time in the more than 40 years that EPA has been implementing the Clean Air Act has compliance with air pollution standards resulted in reliability problems.”
“Heed the advice of grid experts, such as the electrical engineers at NERC, FERC, utilities and regional transmission organizations,” Fisher recommended at the end of his 2015 study for IER. What the grid gurus have told us over and over again is that renewable energy is reliable, and we can use much more of it in the years to come using the tools and technologies that are available today. Plus, clean energy policies generate cleaner electricity and a host of co-benefits. For example, previous analyses of state renewable energy standards by two of DOE's national labs have powered new jobs and reduced carbon dioxide and other harmful air pollutants, all at little to no additional cost to consumers. Rick Perry has praised those labs as national scientific and engineering treasures.
Travis Fisher Downplayed Threats to Power Grid
“Extreme weather places immense stress on the electricity system,” Fisher admitted in his 2015 grid study for IER. “In fact, bad weather remains the number one cause of power outages.” Fisher's own words exposed his all-too-obvious attempt to mischaracterize clean energy policies as “the single greatest threat to reliable electricity,” as he put it.
Meanwhile, DOE published a 2015 report that identified the ways that extreme weather and climate change threaten reliable electricity in every region of the U.S. A total of 8.5 million people lost power during 2012's Hurricane Sandy. The impact of that storm was strengthened by climate change. Long lines formed at gas stations as people sought fuel to power backup generators. Yet Fisher made no mention of Hurricane Sandy in his 2015 IER study. In fact, he avoided any mention of the threat that climate change poses to the electric grid. He instead focused on his attacks on the Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever national limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that contribute to climate change.
Fisher even mixed in the sort of rhetoric common among the network of fossil fuel funded climate skeptics that IER and AEA are a part of. “The problem with calling it the 'Clean Power Plan' is that carbon dioxide is not dirty but rather a clean, odorless gas,” Fisher wrote. To his credit, Fisher did mention that coal and natural gas can face challenges during periods of extreme cold. He focused on how the Polar Vortex disrupted the natural gas market as demand spiked. However, like many coal backers, Fisher either missed or ignored the fact that coal-fired power plants accounted for 26 percentage of outages in the ERCOT and Eastern Interconnections. He also neglected to mention that record wind power had saved electric utility customers money during recent periods of extreme cold.
Fisher also downplayed the threat posed by cyber, electromagnetic pulse, or terrorist attacks on the nation's power supply. He suggested the threat of U.S. retaliation served as an effective deterrent effect against attacks on the nation's power grid. He acknowledged one real world example in San Jose, where quick action by the local utility averted a blackout after a 2014 sniper attack on a power substation.
However, Fisher ignored the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2011. While terrorists' primary target in New York was the World Trade Center, the attack also knocked out power to Lower Manhattan and destroyed two power substations. More than 2,000 Con Edison employees eventually restored power after they laid down 36 miles of emergency cable to bring electricity back to the impacted area. Initial estimates by Con Edison put the cost of repairs at $400 million. Fisher didn't deny that extreme weather and “human attacks,” as he called them, posed significant threats, but he did mischaracterize clean energy policies as an even greater threat to the power grid.
Fisher Supported Fossil Fuel Infrastructure, But Not Renewables
The 2015 grid study that Fisher wrote for IER also included support for escalating new oil and gas pipelines by overcoming what he described as “permitting delays” at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and at the state level. Many environmentalists view FERC as a “rubber stamp” for pipelines, a concern that's only increased since President Trump named his nominees to the commission. Fisher even threw in a pitch for the Keystone XL pipeline, even though oil provides less than one percent of U.S. electricity.
He claimed that reliance on railroads to move tar sands oil meant that less rail capacity was available to transport coal and other things. Fisher wrote that use of fossil fuels was limited by a lack of infrastructure, and he was happy to spend other people's money to fix it. Not so for renewable energy. Fisher argued that the grid should not be updated to integrate more wind and solar power. “In other words, the incompatibility of wind and solar power on the grid is not a major drawback of the grid,” Fisher said. “Rather, it is a major drawback of these sources of power.” Fisher encouraged government to engage in the very behavior that he and his “free market” allies in the Koch world routinely disparage: picking winners and losers in the energy market.
Fisher Loyal to Fossil Fuel Interests
Travis Fisher is the subject of one edition of the John William Pope Foundation's “achiever spotlight,” which highlights “the lives of individuals who have achieved much, thanks in large part to the generosity of nonprofits and organizations supported by the Foundation.” The foundation is led by Art Pope, a financier of right wing causes who plays an outsized role in North Carolina politics. Among the causes Pope has funded: climate denial and attacks on clean energy policies. As a college student at North Carolina State University in 2006, Travis Fisher was enrolled in the school's program on Economic, Legal and Political Foundations of Free Economies, a beneficiary of Pope's largesse. He was also a research intern at the John Locke Foundation, which was launched by Pope during the 1990s and has received money from the Koch brothers, where he worked on “policy alternatives” on issues that included the environment.
The group would later use Fisher's work for IER and AEA to support its attacks on North Carolina's renewable energy standard. After college, Fisher landed a job as an economist at FERC during the summer of 2006. After seven years at the commission, he decided to take a job at IER in 2013. Fisher later shared his thinking on energy policy with the John William Pope Foundation.
“It seems conventional wisdom that government should get more involved in energy,” Fisher said in his achiever spotlight on JWPF.org. “It's counter intuitive [sic] to argue that government should get out of energy. But I like the challenge.”
A list of landing team members on GreatAgain.gov, the Trump transition team's website, disclosed Fisher's “current or most recent employer” as IER, but did not list AEA—even though Fisher is listed as an “IER economist” and “AEA economist” on the groups' respective websites. The transition team website also listed “funding source: private” for Fisher, while some other landing team members were identified as volunteers. The site did not disclose the private source of Fisher's funding.
A separate financial disclosure filed by Fisher and published by The Intercept also disclosed his employment by IER, but not AEA. He also disclosed “Employment Assets and Retirement Plans,” which included his IER salary and related 401K, as well as his participation in the “Charles Koch Industries 401K.” In a section below titled, “Filer Employer Agreements and Arrangement,” Fisher disclosed to continue to participate in both 401K plans, but specified that both IER and the “Charles Koch Institute” would no longer make contributions. A Google search revealed no previous record of Fisher's employment with the Charles Koch Institute.
IER, AEA Influence Over Trump
It's no coincidence that, now that Donald Trump is in the White House, some of the same clean energy policies that Fisher targeted for attack in his 2015 grid study for IER are now being rolled back. As a candidate, Donald Trump was one of only two Republicans who responded to an AEA questionnaire. In his response to a question about the Clean Power Plan, Trump pledged that “all EPA rules will be reviewed.” Trump also pledged to rescind the Clean Power Plan while in the campaign trail.
During the Trump transition, an IER-AEA memo from the desk of Tom Pyle, which was obtained by the Center for Media & Democracy, predicted that the Clean Power Plan would be withdrawn by the Trump administration—even if courts upheld the rule. Pyle, IER and AEA soon got their wish. Trump signed an executive order that began the process of reviewing the Clean Power Plan during his first 100 days in the White House. His administration also hit the pause button on the EPA's legal efforts to defend the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, another target of Fisher's 2015 IER report, in court.
With Fisher at the helm, the DOE grid study ordered by Rick Perry could serve as a convenient excuse when the Trump administration's “review” of the Clean Power Plan culminates in a real plan to “suspend, revise or rescind” the rule. It could also be used to justify attempts by the Trump administration to preempt state and local clean energy laws, though any such effort would face an uphill battle. Finally, the new DOE grid study could be used to reignite efforts to rollback renewable energy standards and net metering incentives at the state level. In any case, clean energy supporters will have no shortage of evidence at the ready to debunk any erroneous claims made by Fisher, and make the case that renewable energy is affordable, reliable and benefits our economy and the environment.
Main image: Travis Fisher's Twitter image superimposed on the cover of his 2015 report for the Institute for Energy Research.