Coal and nuclear plant owners wrap themselves in ‘resilience flag’ to draw Trump’s attention

New report downplays concerns about loss of coal and nuclear plants.

Workers repair wires in Orange, Texas after the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey on September 7, 2017. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Workers repair wires in Orange, Texas after the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey on September 7, 2017. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Until 2017, the “resilience” of the electric power sector had referred to the power grid’s ability to withstand and recover from extreme weather and other threats.

But the Trump administration, as it has with so many other issues, succeeded in distorting the meaning of the word and changing the conservation to reflect the priorities of the president and his political benefactors. Integral to this effort was when President Trump’s Department of Energy began equating grid resilience to a region’s ability to ensure there would be a plentiful amount of coal and nuclear generating capacity.

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A new report, commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Natural Resources Defense Council, (NRDC), seeks to debunk claims made by the Trump administration about the relationship between grid resilience and coal and nuclear plants.

This comes at the same time as electric grid operator PJM Interconnection announced it will be conducting a study over the next few months “to understand the fuel-supply risks in an environment trending towards greater reliance on natural gas.”

One of the main takeaways from this week’s report by EDF and NRDC — “A Customer-Focused Framework for Electric System Resilience” — is that generation-related solutions, like keeping dirty coal and uneconomic nuclear plants online past their retirement dates, are the least-effective for improving resilience.

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Generation and fuel supply shortages rarely cause customer outages and are not good at providing many essential reliability services, according to the report. Instead of wasting time and customers’ money using grid resilience as a reason to keep uneconomic coal and nuclear generators afloat, policy-makers should focus attention on creating more durable distribution systems, the report said.

In conjunction with the release of the report, John Moore and Gillian Giannetti, two attorneys at the NRDC, wrote Thursday in a blog post that coal and nuclear power plant owners have “wrapped themselves in the resilience flag” in an attempt to justify profit guarantees for their financially struggling resources.

Moore and Giannetti, who also work for the Sustainable FERC Project, said that issues with fuel supply — coal, uranium, natural gas, water, wind, and solar, for example — account for only 0.00007 percent of total grid disruptions. The Sustainable FERC Project is a coalition of state, regional, and environmental organizations pushing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to support policies that benefit clean energy resources.

So far, President Trump and his industry supporters have failed in their effort to reverse the fortunes of the coal and nuclear generation sectors. But Energy Secretary Rick Perry and the president still have certain powers at their disposal to help owners of coal and nuclear plants.

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Perry, for example, could use his authority as head of the Department of Energy to spur emergency compensation for coal and nuclear plants run by FirstEnergy Solutions that may be at risk of shutting.

The Trump administration also reportedly has been exploring using the Defense Production Act of 1950 to help coal and nuclear plant owners. The law gives the president broad powers to require businesses to prioritize contracts for materials deemed vital to national security. In this case, electric grid operators and utilities could be forced to purchase power from coal and nuclear plants if Trump invokes the act.

As the administration ponders whether it should take drastic measures to help the owners of these power plants, the new report attempts to pull the conversation back to what it sees as the most relevant factors behind grid resilience.

Throughout the report, its authors emphasize that since most outages occur due to problems at the distribution level and since long-duration outages are caused primarily by severe weather events, measures that strengthen distribution and hasten recovery are highly cost-effective.

In contrast, measures to make power generation more resilient “are likely to have little impact on outage frequency, duration or magnitude,” according to the report.

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The report was prepared by a trio of consultants: Alison Silverstein of Alison Silverstein Consluting, and Rob Gramlich and Michael Goggin of Grid Strategies LLC.

The authors seek to bring a “customer-centric framework” to the conversation on grid resilience, one that includes customer-sited energy efficiency and distributed generation and storage.

“Power system resilience should be measured from the end user’s perspective — how many outages happen (frequency), the number of customers affected by an outage (scale), and the length of time before interrupted service can be restored (duration),” the authors write. “And since long outages do occur, we should also consider customer survivability as an important element of resilience preparations.”

As the debate raged in 2017 over Perry’s proposal to get federal regulators to approve subsidies for troubled coal and nuclear plants, confusion emerged over the definition of grid resilience. The report’s authors aim to clear up any misunderstanding.

Power system reliability and resilience are deeply intertwined. According to the authors, reliability covers those long-term and operational steps that reduce the probability of power interruptions and prevent loss of customer demand, while resilience measures reduce damage from outages and hasten restoration and recovery to shorten outage durations.

Utility performance will define resilience

The primary factor defining grid resilience will not be the availability of coal or nuclear plants, according to the report. Grid resilience will be determined by the performance of electric utility operations at the distribution level.

Damage to power lines, poles, and transformers — major components of an electric distribution system — are what cause 90 percent of electricity service interruptions, according to DOE data.

Over a two-year period in the mid-2000s, for example, Florida was slammed by one major hurricane after another. The storms wreaked havoc on the state’s electric power system. In response, the state’s electric utilities made a commitment to hardening their systems to prevent similar widespread outages the next time a storm hit the peninsula.

Since 2006, Florida Power & Light has invested more than $3 billion to build a more resilient grid. After a decade of limited hurricane activity in the state, last year’s Hurricane Irma was the first major test for the company since Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005.

“Our investments were invaluable,” Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy wrote in an article published in the January/February 2018 issue of the Edison Electric Institute’s Electric Perspectives magazine. “Fewer than half as many substations were affected and those that were impacted came back online more quickly.”

Even though Irma was a larger and stronger storm than Wilma, the company’s new automated switching system avoided nearly 600,000 customer interruptions. The fury of Irma knocked out power to 90 percent of FPL’s customers, but all of its customers had their power restored within 10 days compared to 18 days following Wilma.