As policymakers in Washington like to point out, America is undergoing an “energy transition.” But as Washington embarks on a major national shift toward renewable energy, there’s a serious question — can we manage this wide-scale transformation without losing the security and reliability of our existing power grid?
The answer — according to the nation’s grid reliability experts — is that we’re on the verge of catastrophe. But instead of smart policies to address this looming crisis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has actually issued a blitz of new rules that could make things worse.
The EPA has just proposed a rule that will systematically sweep aside the nation’s existing coal and natural gas power plants. These power plants currently meet 60 percent of America’s energy demand. But the rule will give plant owners a choice: Either close their plants in a few years or install new emissions control technologies. However, the technologies the EPA is offering will actually ensure that plant owners can’t use them.
Consider the mandate for the coal fleet. Coal plant operators will need to outfit their plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS) — and capture 90 percent of carbon emissions by 2030 — if they wish to remain in operation past the 2030s. By law, the EPA is only supposed to mandate proven, available technologies. However, there is nothing cost-effective or feasible about current CCS. The system remains in its infancy, and only one power plant globally is currently even using it at the scale the EPA requires.
In effect, should the EPA’s rule advance, utilities will need to decide nearly overnight about investing in a technology no one is sure can work, or be cost-effective. Faced with that kind of choice, utilities will opt to close their plants to comply with the EPA’s mandate.
That seems to be exactly what the EPA wants. More than a year ago, EPA administrator Michael Regan boasted that “expedited plant retirements…are the best tool for reducing gas emissions.” In effect, the EPA will use its new suite of rules to push utilities to close down rather than upgrade.
The EPA’s new carbon rule is just one of six that the EPA is proposing to drive the coal fleet off the grid. The cumulative effect will be to devastate the nation’s 200 gigawatts of remaining coal capacity — which still meets 20 percent of the nation’s power. Significantly, coal remains the largest source of power generation in 18 states.
The loss of so much capacity, so quickly — alongside an expected spate of natural gas plant closures — is exactly what the nation’s grid regulators have been warning against.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which oversees the reliability of the nation’s grid, has warned for years about the threat posed by the rapid loss of baseload power plants. In fact, its new summer 2023 reliability assessment found that two-thirds of the nation now faces an elevated risk of blackouts during extended heat waves.
Even the Biden administration’s hand-picked chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Willie Phillips, recently told Congress that he’s “extremely concerned about the pace of retirements we are seeing of generators which are needed for reliability on our system.”
The EPA seems to be willfully ignoring this looming crisis. That’s reckless, and the consequences could be devastating. There’s a responsible way to navigate America’s energy future, but the path being taken by the Biden administration and the EPA simply isn’t it.
Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the board of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.
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- On May 23, 2023