Today, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry directed the nation’s federal grid regulator to create rules favoring coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear generators. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) (PDF) stated that the Federal Energy Regulatory Council (FERC) must order grid operators to increase how they value “reliability and resilience attributes” in energy generation.
Although no specific electricity sources were mentioned as beneficiaries of the rule, generating units that can hold a 90-day supply of fuel on site would be favored. Coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric power plants fit the bill, and variably-generating renewable resources like wind and solar would be left out of whatever compensation scheme comes out of FERC’s rulemaking process.
Promoting coal has been a primary goal for the new Trump Administration, echoed fervently by Perry, a former Texas governor with ties to the fossil fuel industry. Although burning coal is one of the most polluting sources of electricity used in the US, and the shale boom has made cheap and cleaner-burning natural gas a popular alternative, the shift away from coal has been resisted by political forces. Trump himself has called climate change a “hoax,” and although Perry has been somewhat more deliberate in choosing his words since taking the secretary’s office, he’s also called into question the anthropogenic nature of climate change despite exhaustive evidence to support human-caused warming.
In today’s NOPR, the DOE justified its request for rulemaking, writing that “the resiliency of the nation’s electric grid is threatened by the premature retirements of power plants that can withstand major fuel supply disruptions caused by natural or man-made disasters.”
The NOPR comes after the summer release of a “baseload energy report” that was commissioned by Perry in an April memo. Perry requested his office study the US grid’s reliability and resilience, accusing climate change-focused policies from the previous administration of killing jobs and weakening the grid (despite the solar, wind, and natural gas sectors adding jobs during the previous years).
The resulting DOE staff report commissioned by Perry was less overtly political, and it noted that cheap natural gas, not renewable energy, was the primary contributor to coal retirements. The report also recommended compensating power plants for reliability.
Today’s NOPR says specifically plants that can hold 90 days worth of fuel are compliant with all applicable environmental regulations, and such plants are not subject to cost-of-service rate regulation by a local authority. These plant will be able to seek “full recovery of costs.”
In a statement, the Director of Energy and Transportation for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Kit Kennedy said, “This radical proposal would lead to higher energy bills for consumers and businesses, as well as dirtier air and increased health problems. DOE’s proposal is unprecedented, and ignores the findings of its own report on electricity markets and grid reliability, which did not demonstrate any need to bail out these large uneconomic power plants.”
The issue now goes to FERC, which was given 60 days to issue a rule. Acting FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee, a Trump appointee, has indicated approval for some sort of baseload compensation scheme.
The very nature of baseload energy is a topic that’s debated within the energy industry. Coal plants and nuclear reactors alike have periodic downtime for maintenance that can last weeks or months, and they’re not weatherproof, either. In Florida, the local utility took one reactor at Turkey Point offline in preparation for Hurricane Irma, and it was prepared to take all of its reactors offline if the hurricane changed course. Similarly, E&E News reports that one of the nation’s largest coal plants had to take two of its units offline and temporarily convert another two to natural gas-burning after its coal piles were flooded during Hurricane Harvey.