Don’t buy Perry’s reliability ruse. His fake study is pro-coal propaganda.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s so-called grid reliability study will be nothing more than thinly-veiled propaganda for the coal industry and a tool to justify expensive government handouts to outdated power plants.

How do we know? The tactic is ripped straight from FirstEnergy’s well-worn subsidy playbook.

The Ohio-based utility has relentlessly sought a massive, customer-funded bailout to prop up its unprofitable power plants. It repeatedly tried using reliability as an excuse for subsidies, while the regional grid operator repeatedly declared there would be plenty of generation to keep the lights on without FirstEnergy’s old power plants.

The reliability justification hasn’t worked for FirstEnergy, and it won’t work for the pro-coal Trump administration. The reality is, a 21st-century energy system won’t be based on old, lumbering coal plants. Instead, modern energy technology means we can build a cleaner, more flexible, and reliable electric grid.

Retirements won’t hurt reliability

Since 2014, FirstEnergy has been trying to bail out its subsidiary power plants that are struggling to compete in the electricity market. Under the guise of grid reliability, the utility asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to authorize billions of dollars in customer-funded subsidies for its aging, inefficient coal and nuclear plants.

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Reliability is undoubtedly an important issue. That’s why the responsibility is in the hands of the regional grid operator, in this case PJM Interconnection, which manages electricity across 13 states and consistently examines the region’s power capacity to make sure the lights stay on.

PJM’s generation mix has changed drastically in the past decade: Since 2005, coal and nuclear have dropped from 91 percent of the region’s electricity to 51 percent. Despite these dramatic changes, PJM’s most recent analysis of reliability and fuel diversity [PDF] – which includes multiple scenarios with moderate to high coal and nuclear retirements – shows little to no reliability risk over the coming years. In other words, PJM’s grid can lose more coal and nuclear without affecting reliability.

FirstEnergy’s reliability claims are a scare tactic. At one point, the PUCO chairman even warned the utility to stop “scaring Ohioans.”

Outdated power generation

FirstEnergy’s efforts are the result of a larger, national trend away from “baseload” power. Baseload refers to some power plants – mainly nuclear reactors and coal-fired power plants – that have a hard time ramping up and down in response to changing electricity demand, and thus need to operate all the time to provide a “base” output of power.

These power plants are being quickly outstripped by sophisticated resources that will lead to a cleaner, more efficient electric grid. Remarkable advances provided by modern sensors, smart meters, and telecommunications have created dynamic power options that allow the grid to respond more nimbly than ever before. For example, demand response (which credits homes and business for using less electricity when the power grid is stressed), renewable energy, and battery storage are all increasing the grid’s flexibility while maintaining reliability.

Grid operators like PJM extensively have studied electric reliability and are managing the shift to cleaner fuels just fine.

As regulators and executives think of how best to modernize the grid, the focus should be on these tools that encourage diversity and flexibility, while reducing the need for outdated baseload generators.

“Study” not about reliability

Between the falling cost of clean energy and new technology constantly being unveiled, the electricity industry has more power options than ever before. The transition to a clean energy economy will take time, and stodgy utilities like FirstEnergy will fight tooth-and-nail to preserve their baseload gravy trains.

Unfortunately, these utilities now have an ally in the federal government, which appears willing to prop up the polluting coal industry at a cost to Americans’ health and utility bills.

Step one of the Trump administration’s ruse is producing the 60-day so-called study of whether any policies or regulations have led to the premature retirement of coal or nuclear plants. For proof of the tie between FirstEnergy’s bailout efforts and the so-called study, take a look at the utility’s Q1 earnings call, in which the CEO boasted of how the federal study could have a “potential positive impact” on “the Ohio initiative” (aka the bailout).

On the plus side, grid operators like PJM extensively have studied electric reliability and are managing the shift to cleaner fuels just fine. Don’t be fooled by the bogus reliability claims. Despite pro-coal efforts from utilities and federal agencies, America is headed to a cleaner, more efficient, and reliable energy future.

Photo source: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 3, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Dick, what does EDF have to offer that is cleaner or more reliable than the clean, old, reliable, profitable, Davis-Besse nuclear plant?

    Nothing? That’s what I thought.