EPA v. The Grid
A week after FERC commissioners warned about a looming “catastrophic reliability failure,” the EPA issued rules that could devastate the Mother Network.
On May 4, members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission delivered stark warnings to the members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The agency’s acting chairman, Willie Phillips, told the senators, “We face unprecedented challenges to the reliability of our nation’s electric system.”
FERC Commissioner Mark Christie echoed Phillips’ warning, saying the U.S. electric grid is “heading for a very catastrophic situation in terms of reliability.” His colleague, Commissioner James Danly, averred that there is a “looming reliability crisis in our electricity markets.”
The commissioners pointed to several factors for the reliability crisis, including numerous coal plants that are being retired prematurely, insufficient pipeline capacity to assure natural gas can be delivered to power plants, insufficient high-voltage transmission capacity, and distortions in the electricity market caused by massive federal subsidies for weather-dependent renewables.
On the last point, Danly told the senators, “FERC has allowed the markets to fall prey to the price distorting and warping effects of subsidies and public policies that have driven the advancement of large quantities of intermittent renewable resources onto the electric system.” In his written testimony, Danly went further, saying “Most of these market-distorting forces originate with subsidies -- both state and federal -- and from public policies that are otherwise designed to promote the deployment of non-dispatchable wind and solar assets or to drive fossil-fuel generators out of business as quickly as possible.”
Danly continued: “The subsidies available to renewable generators are so lucrative that, when participating in procurement auctions, they are able to offer at a price of zero instead of their actual cost. The market signal thereby created is that these new resources can be built for free, and thus the cost of power is also free. This, of course, is untrue, and the inevitable consequence is market-wide price suppression. The price suppression deprives other market participants of much-needed revenue, leading to the premature retirement of the dispatchable generators which have to offer into the market at their true costs in order to remain viable.”
During questioning of the FERC commissioners, the chairman of Senate ENR, Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, asked all of the commissioners a simple question: can the electric grid as it exists today, be reliable without coal-fired generation? All of the commissioners said no, with Christie saying “We need to keep coal for the foreseeable future.”
Exactly one week after that May 4 hearing, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposed rule that could force the closure of every coal-fired power plant in America as well as most of the natural gas plants if they cannot cut their emissions by 90%. Here’s how Politico reported on it: The new rule will require, “most fossil fuel power plants to slash their greenhouse gas pollution 90% between 2035 and 2040 -- or shut down.”
Thus, at the same time FERC commissioners are warning of catastrophic failures on the U.S. electric grid, the EPA under President Joe Biden wants to implement rules that could -- repeat, could -- force the closure of 90 percent of the hydrocarbon-fueled power plants in the country.
That would be catastrophic. Last year, hydrocarbon-fueled power plants in the U.S. generated 2,518 terawatt-hours of energy, which was about 59% of all the juice produced in the country. (Coal plants produced about 829 terawatt-hours and gas-fired generators produced 1,689 terawatt-hours.) If we take 90% of the 2,518 terawatt-hours produced from coal and gas plants, we get 2,266 terawatt-hours of electricity per year.
As can be seen in the graphic above, the 2,266 terawatt-hours of energy that we generate from hydrocarbons every year is more than 10 times the amount of juice now being produced by all of the solar panels in the country. It’s also more than five times more than what’s being produced by wind turbines, and nearly three times more than what’s being generated by all of our nuclear plants.
The EPA’s proposed rule hinges on the dubious claim that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is ready for prime time. Politico reporter Alex Guillén explained that to “justify the size of those cuts, the agency says fossil fuel plants could capture their greenhouse gas emissions before they hit the atmosphere — a long-debated technology that no power plant in the U.S. uses now.”
Why aren’t power plants using it? As I explained in a piece published in 2010 in the New York Times, the energy penalty for capturing carbon dioxide from flue gas (known as the parasitic load) is about 28%. Thus, simply capturing the CO2 slashes the output of the plant by more than a quarter. Second, we don’t have enough pipelines to move that colorless, odorless, worthless gas. Remember, due to opposition from climate activists, energy companies can’t get permits to build pipelines that carry valuable products like crude oil and natural gas. Given that, it’s unlikely that any energy companies will be able to get permits for pipelines to carry CO2. Indeed, the rural resistance against CO2 pipelines is already fierce. For proof of that, see this AP story about Burleigh County, ND, which approved an ordinance in March requiring special permits for pipelines that carry “hazardous liquids such as carbon dioxide.”
Third, the amount of gas involved is staggering. A bit of simple math shows that sequestering 600 million tons of CO2 per year (the number the EPA published in its May 11 press release) would require creating an industry capable of handling a mass of CO2 that’s equal to about 12 million barrels of oil per day. In other words, the EPA’s proposed CCS plan if enacted, would require creating the U.S. oil industry in reverse. (U.S. oil production is now about 12.5 million barrels per day.) As an alternative to CCS, the EPA is also claiming that power plant owners could fuel their generators with hydrogen, an energy carrier that is getting more hype than the Kardashians (and is about as useful).
Sequestering 600 million tons of CO2 per year (the number the EPA published in its May 11 press release) would require creating an industry capable of handling a mass of CO2 that’s equal to about 12 million barrels of oil per day. In other words, the EPA’s proposed CCS plan if enacted, would require creating the U.S. oil industry in reverse.
Despite the obvious cost, technical, and scale problems with CCS, the leaders of America’s biggest alt-energy NGOs happily cheered the EPA’s proposed power plant rule.
Fred Krupp, the longtime president of the Environmental Defense Fund (annual budget: $358 million), told PBS that the proposal “will bring us closer to a clean energy future with healthier air, a safer climate, good jobs, and affordable, reliable electricity.” David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, (annual budget: $233 million) was quoted by PBS thusly: “We need to do this to meet the climate crisis.″
PBS went on to declare that “The power plant rules are crucial to meeting Biden’s goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate carbon emissions from the power grid by 2035, he [Doniger] and other advocates said.”
A few more points about grid reliability are essential here. In December of last year, the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the non-profit that advises regional grid operators (like ERCOT, CAISO, and PJM) about the reliability of the bulk power system, released its Long-Term Reliability Assessment. NERC found that much of North America is at “elevated” or “high” risk of electricity shortfalls during extreme weather. John Moura, NERC’s director of reliability assessment and performance analysis, told reporters that there are “extraordinary reliability challenges and opportunities in front of us.” As Robert Walton, a reporter for Utility Dive put it, NERC has been “warning about the speed of the energy transition in recent years.”
In February, PJM, the regional transmission operator that covers about a dozen states in the northeastern U.S., issued a report which found that several trends, including early retirements of coal plants, “present increasing reliability risks.” It noted that retirements of existing plants “are at risk of outpacing the construction of new resources, due to a combination of industry forces, including siting and supply chain, whose long-term impacts are not fully known.” It continued, saying the projects waiting to be connected are composed “primarily of intermittent and limited-duration resources. Given the operating characteristics of these resources, we need multiple megawatts of these resources to replace 1 megawatt of thermal generation.”
In March, during a speech to the Electric Power Supply Association, PJM’s CEO, Manu Asthana, put it bluntly: “When you look at the rate of retirements, you look at the rate of growth, and you add in the current rate of throughput for our queue -- we are headed for some trouble. And that trouble is likely to find us later in this decade.”
Asthana’s remarks are nearly identical to what the FERC commissioners said last week. Thus, the top people and key agencies that oversee the operation of the electric grid -- FERC, NERC, and PJM -- are all warning that our most important energy network is becoming less reliable. That declining reliability is happening at the same time the NGO-corporate-industrial-climate complex is spending tens of millions of dollars on campaigns to “electrify everything.” Those measures include bans on natural gas for heating and cooking in homes and businesses. The alt-energy push also includes, of course, electric vehicles. And again, the timing matters. The EPA’s May 11 announcement about power plants came less than a month after the same agency announced pollution rules that could require up to two-thirds of all the new vehicles sold in the country to be electric by 2032.
In summary, the Biden administration and its many allies in the $4.5 billion-per-year anti-industry industry are aggressively pushing policies that will dramatically increase demand for electricity across the country at the same time that the EPA is pushing rules that are undermining the reliability of the electric grid. Of course, all this is being justified in the name of climate change. On May 11, Biden said the EPA’s proposed power plant rule is “a major step forward in the climate crisis.”
But if Biden is serious about climate change and reducing emissions, he should immediately give a speech on the need for accelerated development and deployment of nuclear energy. As my pal, Doomberg, correctly noted last week, “there is no path to significant decarbonization of our economy without a global nuclear renaissance.”
The U.S. should be leading that renaissance and Biden and his fellow Democrats should be cheering it on at every opportunity. Alas, that isn’t happening. Instead, Biden’s administration continues pushing radical and impractical proposals that are imposing regressive energy taxes on low- and middle-income consumers, hurting our energy security, and increasing the risk of a catastrophic failure of our electric grid.
It’s time for sober thinking about our energy and power networks. We need an affordable, reliable, and resilient electric grid. Unfortunately, sober thinking about energy is in desperately short supply in Washington, DC.