Coal-heavy utilities in the Midwest have mustered a new argument to secure subsidies for their uneconomic power plants. They used to suggest the plants were needed to maintain reliability, until regional grid operators declared there was plenty of generation to ensure the lights stayed on. They then attempted to argue the plants provided jobs and taxes to the local communities, until conservative economists highlighted the inefficiency of subsidies.
Now several utility executives, including the chief executive officer of American Electric Power (AEP), are trying to regale regulators with the importance of baseload generation. The argument goes something like this: Since some power plants – largely nuclear reactors and coal-fired power plants – have a hard time ramping up and down in response to changing electricity demand, the grid needs those units to operate all the time, to provide a “base” output of power.
Such last-century thinking, however, ignores the phenomenal advances provided by modern sensors, smart meters, and telecommunications. A combination of dynamic power options – like demand response (crediting homes and business for using less electricity when the power grid is stressed), renewable energy, and battery storage, among others – allow the grid to respond more nimbly than ever before. Rather than propping up old, lumbering baseload generators, we should prioritize a more modern, cleaner grid that focuses on flexibility and diversity. Read More
On any given day, half a million Americans lose power for two or more hours. Those blackouts cost our economy billions of dollars. 70 percent of the U.S. grid that delivers electricity to our homes and businesses is at least 25 years old, and comparatively we endure more outages than other developed nations. We suffer some 360 minutes of outages each year, compared with just 16 minutes for Korea, 15 for Germany, and 11 for Japan.
A new book – The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future – offers these and other insights about the challenges of modernizing America’s electric grid – the set of wires and transformers that transmit and deliver power. According to the author, McGill University professor and cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke, our current system is “worn down, it’s patched up, and every hoped-for improvement is expensive and bureaucratically bemired.”
But change could be on the horizon. With a new president and Congress taking office in January, legislation to address America’s deteriorating infrastructure, like bridges and lead-laden water pipes, will likely be debated. High on their list of priorities should be new policies encouraging private-sector investment and innovation in the electricity sector.
Here are four ideas from Bakke that the new Congress and administration should keep in mind as they consider legislation that will lay the groundwork for America’s energy future. Read More
Ohio policymakers are at a crossroads. They can create jobs, grow the economy, cut pollution, and save customers money by rebuilding the state’s renewable and energy efficiency policies, or they can continue to let Ohio fall behind in the clean energy economy.
A little background: In 2014, the Ohio Legislature placed a two-year freeze on the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy standards as a result of political pressure from Ohio’s largest power company, FirstEnergy, among others. The standards required electric utilities to generate 12.5 percent of electricity sales from renewable sources, as well as reduce energy consumption 22 percent by 2025 through efficiency programs. Since the freeze, Ohio has lost millions of dollars in energy investment and jobs, and lags behind nearly every other state in percentage of renewable energy generated.
Now that the two years are almost up, it’s time for Ohio to decide how to move forward – if at all – on its clean energy standards. Fortunately, according to a new report from Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy, there are at least three achievable routes to reinstate the renewable and efficiency standards – each of which would provide substantial economic and health benefits to the state at a value of $3 to $5 billion by 2030. Read More
In a long-awaited decision, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) yesterday approved a $600-million electricity rate plan for FirstEnergy.
One read of the decision is, regulators killed the Ohio-based utility giant’s massive bailout and ordered the utility to modernize its grid. If accurate, this would be an incredible victory: Dirty power plants would not be subsidized, FirstEnergy would not be rewarded for its poor business decisions, and the company would invest in measures that increase efficiency and welcome clean-energy resources.
Ah, if the PUCO order were only so clear. On the one hand, it does seem the regulators are giving FirstEnergy $600 million upfront and requiring it to spend those funds on grid-modernization programs the PUCO will approve in the future. Yet, the more realistic read is, Ohio regulators are simply handing FirstEnergy $600 million in hopes the subsidy will allow the utility to improve its balance sheet. Then, FirstEnergy will (hopefully) propose grid-modernization efforts that the PUCO will consider and fund down the line. In other words, the PUCO is providing FirstEnergy a no-strings-attached subsidy.
The decision is unusual and a bit difficult to interpret – even the PUCO chairman admits the approach is “undoubtedly unconventional.” The only certainty is that this issue will not die. Environmental Defense Fund and its allies will continue to press the PUCO and the Ohio Supreme Court to ensure the $600 million goes toward building a cleaner, more modern electric grid. Read More
The U.S. economy is wonderfully dynamic. New businesses launch daily, creating jobs and providing tax revenues for schools and police. Innovative technologies are introduced, offering customers more choice and improved services. Sometimes, of course, those new firms and devices replace existing institutions and products.
Today’s electricity industry is no exception. Technological advances are helping hundreds of new businesses deploy wind turbines and solar panels, build new natural-gas generators, and install monitors and controls that increase the efficiency of buildings and factories. At the same time, uneconomic and often dirty power plants are closing – within the past few years more than 10,000 megawatts of electric capacity in Ohio alone have closed or been announced to close.
Such closures can be good for customers, since they enjoy lower costs from the modern technologies. Closures can also be good for public health and the environment, since old units no longer spew mercury, carbon dioxide, and other harmful pollutants into the air.
Plant closures, however, also impact energy workers and their local communities. As the country’s energy system transitions from coal to cleaner ways of making electricity, companies and policymakers should support and provide resources for those most affected – so everyone may benefit from the clean energy economy.
As a utility executive, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is the age of innovation, it is the age of stagnant tradition. With a nod to Charles Dickens, it is the epoch of environmental improvement, it is the epoch of continued pollution.
Perhaps no state better represents those extremes than Illinois, where Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) in the north is considering new business models and embracing greenhouse-gas reductions, while Ameren in the south is rejecting change and virtually anything related to clean energy.