A proposed federal rule to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from U.S. power plants will weaken the nation’s power grid and could even cause blackouts, say some of the officials who run the country’s electricity network.
The Environmental Protection Agency wants carbon-dioxide emissions from plants that generate electricity to be 30% lower by 2030 than a benchmark level set in 2005. More than two million comments have poured into the agency since June, when the Clean Power Plan to curb carbon was released, and many say the reduction isn’t feasible.
Stephen Whitley, chief executive of the New York Independent System Operator, says the proposal threatens power plants critical to New York City because they often have to burn carbon-emitting fuel oil to generate electricity. That is because Empire State plants can have a hard time getting natural-gas deliveries during high-demand seasons like winter.
The EPA refutes the idea that its Clean Power Plan could result in blackouts. In a written statement, the agency says it has enforced the Clean Air Act for 40 years while keeping power flowing to communities and businesses, and the impact of the new Clean Power Plan “will be no different.”
States will have flexibility to achieve carbon reductions and 15 years to make the shift, the agency says. The goal of the carbon-cutting initiative is to comply with President Barack Obama ’s directive to reduce greenhouse gases that heat up the atmosphere, “while also ensuring a reliable energy supply for the future,” the EPA says.
But complying will require many electric utilities across several states to shut down plants that burn coal to generate power, and to build more renewable resources like wind farms. Plants that burn natural gas to create electricity are a good option, in theory, because they emit about half as much carbon as coal, but many states don’t have good access to natural-gas supplies.
Philip Moeller, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, says there may not be enough natural-gas pipeline capacity to move the fuel to all the new gas-burning power plants that will be needed in the future. Furthermore, it is unclear who will pay for building new electric plants and natural-gas pipelines.
FERC will hold three hearings this year on the Clean Power Plan—in Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Denver—at the request of Republicans in the House who oppose it. The EPA said Wednesday it plans to issue a final rule by midsummer—a few weeks later than originally proposed—and wants states to submit their carbon-reduction plans to the agency in 2016.
But grid officials say states may have less time to make adjustments than it appears. Legal challenges could delay a final rule, with critical details cemented, until the end of this decade. And until a final rule is issued, power companies won’t commit to building new resources, they say.
“The clean power plan will cause reliability problems for us” during the transition period, says John Bear, chief executive of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which manages the power grid for an enormous swath of North America, stretching across 15 states from Louisiana to Manitoba. He fears coal-fired plants will shut down before enough replacements are built, crimping electricity supplies.
Mr. Bear says an analysis of the Midcontinent system shows electricity supplies could slip below the federally required level later this decade. As power plants shut down, fewer will feed the grid, increasing the chance for power disruptions during extreme weather, he says.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas issued a report calling a shift to cleaner resources wise, but added, “there is a limit to how fast this change can occur.”
Half the coal-fired power plants operating in Texas are threatened by a raft of environmental rules written by the EPA, including the proposed Clean Power Plan, says Warren Lasher, director of system planning for ERCOT. Coal plants will be forced to scale back operations and will earn less from power sales, he says.
ERCOT economists believe some Texas power plants will fail financially in the state’s deregulated market, and the overall reliability of the state’s power grid will suffer.
Not all grid operators are worried about their networks. California has never depended on coal to generate electricity and already has programs in place that encourage energy conservation and renewable power sources.
But even the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s grid, supports giving states the flexibility to respond to situations that threaten power flows, even if the solution temporarily pushes up pollution. Extremely hot temperatures, hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks could require power generation from dirtier sources that would act as a “reliability safety valve,” California’s system operator says.
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- On January 8, 2015