United States: Trump's Response To Harvey, Irma, Maria And Sandy: More Subsidies For Coal-Fired Power

Last Updated: October 19 2017
Article by Emma F. Hand and Adam Brown

Those who wondered how President Trump would make good on his promise to put coal miners back to work now have their answer. On September 28 2017, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry dusted off a rarely used power in the Department of Energy Organization Act 1977 (DOEOA) and sent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) a proposal that it make a rule to "establish just and reasonable rates for wholesale electricity sales". By this he appears to mean allowing coal-fired (and nuclear) plants to charge higher prices based on their contribution to the resilience of electricity suppliers. (Click here for the text of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR)).

Background

For many, the salient feature of US energy markets over recent years has been the astonishing ability of the unconventional gas industry to produce cheap fuel for power generation that allows new gas-fired plants to out-compete existing coal-fired or nuclear power stations. This new abundance of cheap gas has transformed not just the US, but arguably world energy markets, and along the way it has produced dramatic reductions in US greenhouse gas emissions.

Conventional wisdom recognizes the importance of what are generally thought of as baseload generating plant in markets with increasingly high proportions of (often intermittent) renewable generation, and it has two answers to the question of how to make sure there is enough power when there is a risk that the lights may go out because there is not enough plant on the system that can run regardless of whether the wind is blowing, the sun is shining, or gas supplies have been disrupted as a result of extreme weather events. The first is to let the market function freely and hope that the ability of the most secure generators to supply power in extreme conditions will enable them to charge sufficiently high peak prices (albeit on a very infrequent basis) in the wholesale electricity market to allow them to remain in business. The second is to create a "capacity market" alongside the wholesale power market. The capacity market is then designed so as to ensure that resources that will ensure security of supply are maintained at times when it is threatened, by providing sufficient incentives to sufficiently reliable sources of capacity to remain available to keep the lights on. Rather than just waiting for a chance to charge extremely high prices at a few moments when other generators are unable to satisfy demand, they are paid a regular (but lower) premium for being available "just in case".

Politicians and politically sensitive regulators, if not free-market purists, tend to prefer the capacity market route, because it helps prevent wholesale prices from rising to what might seem excessive levels, and carries less risk that you will have to wait until the lights have gone out a few times before sufficiently reliable generators will act on the electricity market's signal that it is worthwhile remaining in the market. As a result, capacity markets have been a feature of the US power industry for a number of years. Although subject to frequent rule-changes, one of their guiding principles, in theory if not always in practice, is to try to maintain a level playing-field between the different potential sources of capacity – which can include not only all forms of generation, but also demand-side response. The NOPR is a radical departure from this technology-neutral approach.

Reliability and resilience

The NOPR follows on from the Department of Energy (DOE) Staff Report to the Secretary on Electricity Markets and Reliability commissioned by Perry earlier this year (downloadable here). One of the conclusions of that report was: "Markets recognize and compensate reliability, and must evolve to continue to compensate reliability, but more work is needed to address resilience." It drew a distinction between reliability ("the ability of the electric system to supply the aggregate electric power and energy requirements of the electricity customers at all times, taking into account scheduled and reasonably expected unscheduled outages of system components") and resilience ("the ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events, [which] depends upon [the ability of infrastructure] to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event").

Reliability has sometimes been seen as synonymous with dispatchability – the ability of certain technologies to produce power on demand (as compared to "variable" renewables like wind and solar). Resilience on the other hand has often been seen more in terms of the power system as a whole, and the need to improve the resilience of power transmission and distribution networks in the face of increasingly frequent and more severe extreme weather events has been a major driver of increases in network spending. Whereas some would regard gas-fired, coal-fired and nuclear generation as equally reliable, the report, and the NOPR, shift the focus onto resilience and see that quality in terms of the security of a generator's fuel supplies. In simple terms, coal-fired and nuclear plants are more likely to carry stocks of fuel than gas-fired plants, which tend not to store reserves of fuel, but rely on pipeline supplies. Interestingly, however, despite the NOPR's focus on "fuel-secure" plants that can store a 90-day supply of power on-site, such as coal and nuclear, the DOE Staff Report noted that "[m]aintaining onsite fuel resources is one way to improve fuel assurance, but most generation technologies have experienced fuel deliverability challenges in the past. While coal facilities typically store enough fuel onsite to last for 30 days or more, extreme cold can lead to frozen fuel stockpiles and disruption in train deliveries." There appears to be a disconnect between the DOE Staff Report's conclusions regarding fuel supply challenges for all forms of generation and Secretary Perry's proposal to promote coal and nuclear plants, specifically, which might lead one to draw the conclusion that the move is more motivated by politics and the negative economic consequences to communities resulting from the loss of the retiring coal and nuclear generators and less by the attributes those resources offer the electric grid.

The proposed rule

The DOE's proposed rule would require all regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent system operators (ISOs) (like MISO) to adopt market rules that would establish a rate applicable to generators able to store a 90-day supply of fuel on-site (i.e. coal and nuclear generators) that ensures that those generators recover their costs and a fair return on equity (the traditional cost-of-service pricing standard in the U.S.). In short, because coal and nuclear resources have not been able to compete in markets dominated by low-cost natural gas, the DOE is requesting/directing FERC to establish market rules that will pay them more in an attempt to stop the trend of the retirement of coal and nuclear plants. It is a surprisingly blatant attempt to have FERC, which has traditionally favored technology-neutral market rules, set up rules that subsidize specific technologies in order to prop them up.

New York and Illinois have already started moving toward establishing a credit for nuclear generators as part of their programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their states. So there may be some support at the state level for nuclear as a cleaner form of power. States have not been moving toward providing credits or subsidies for coal, however (except, perhaps, for those states whose economies are somewhat reliant on the coal industry), so we would expect to see some significant pushback from state governments as to the subsidy for coal. Also, to the extent that state programs are creating incentives for renewables to enter the market and FERC is creating incentives for coal and nuclear to stay in the market, ratepayers ultimately end up paying for both, even if both are not needed from an energy standpoint.

If you accept the principle that coal and nuclear need "extra help" beyond what they can obtain from the current capacity market, to support their continued operation, there are of course many different ways that such help could be provided. There are also legitimate policy questions to be considered about the risks that in compensating such generators for the service they can provide in particular circumstances, you end up unnecessarily distorting competition in the wholesale power market as a whole. In short, an alternative approach to the resilience problem would be to continue with efforts to enhance co-ordination between wholesale gas and power markets and the development of gas storage capacity, and to improve interconnection between the US's different regional power markets.

What next?

In response to the NOPR, FERC staff have put together a list of 30 questions (many of them in several parts) for interested parties to comment on, teasing out both the principles behind the proposal and the potentially tricky details of its implementation (click here for the list). But there is apparently little time for either stakeholders or FERC to ponder all these questions, since the DOE has set forth a very aggressive timeline for this matter.

  • It is directing FERC to take final action in the matter within 60 days, or in the alternative to adopt the DOE's proposed rule as an Interim Final Rule subject to further change after opportunity for public comment.
  • It states that the comment period will be 45 days or whatever period FERC sets out, if FERC can issue a notice establishing a comment period within 2 business days.
  • The DOE also proposes that any final rule adopted by FERC become effective 30 days after it is issued and would require RTOs to submit a compliance filing proposing their tariff revisions to FERC within 15 days of that date.

This is an extraordinarily accelerated timeline, particularly given the issues at stake and that most RTOs have a lengthy stakeholder process for developing new tariff revisions. Under the DOEOA, FERC is required to "consider and take final action on any proposal made" by the DOE expeditiously in accordance with reasonable time limits set by the Secretary of Energy. However, while FERC must act upon the proposal, it has exclusive jurisdiction, and thus complete discretion to accept, reject, or modify the DOE's proposal. So FERC could issue an order rejecting the DOE's proposal but initiating a similar rulemaking effort on a more realistic timeline. FERC issued a notice inviting interested parties to file comments on the DOE proposal by October 23, and reply comments by November 7.

Unsurprisingly, much of the industry is far from happy about all this. The trade associations have by and large rolled out in opposition to the accelerated timeline. Within a few days of the NOPR, a joint motion of industry associations was filed proposing a 90 day initial comment period and a 45 day reply comment period by the following industry associations: The Advanced Energy Economy, American Biogas Council, American Council on Renewable Energy, American Petroleum Institute, American Public Power Association, American Wind Energy Association, Business Council for Sustainable Energy, Electric Power Supply Association, Electricity Consumers Resource Council, Energy Storage Association, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Natural Gas Supply Association, and Solar Energy Industries Association. (here)

It is remarkable to see the oil and natural gas associations on the same pleading with the municipal utilities, coops, independent power producers, consumer groups, and renewable energy associations. Their motion argues that the proposed reforms laid out in the notice of proposed rulemaking would result in one of the most significant changes in decades to the energy industry and would unquestionably have significant ramifications for wholesale markets under FERC's jurisdiction, and that the time frame allowed is far too short to consider such a significant change. Answers in support of their motion were also filed by the Transmission Access Policy Study Group, Industrial Energy Consumers of America, National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, Northwest & Intermountain Power Producers Coalition, and the American Forest and Paper Association. However, in spite of this unusual amount of industry consensus, FERC has denied the request for an extension of time and is holding fast to its October 23 and November 7 deadlines.

It seems unlikely that FERC will be able to take any substantive action within the time frame set forth by the DOE (unless it rejects the proposal outright).

  • Acting Chairman Chatterjee (Republican) issued a statement in response to the August DOE Staff Report on Electricity Markets and Reliability that FERC would remain focused on the wholesale electric capacity market price formation issues, so there may be some will at FERC to proceed with this rulemaking, but there is likely to be strong state resistance, and as the trade associations point out, it is not going to be an easy matter to figure out how to insert a cost-of-service pricing regime for coal and nuclear resources into otherwise competitive wholesale markets.
  • One of the other Commissioners, Republican Robert Powelson, addressed the issue in a speech he gave this week, reaffirming FERC's independence from the DOE and promising not to "blow up the markets." He is quoted as saying "We will not destroy the marketplace. Markets have worked well and markets need to continue to work well."
  • The third sitting Commissioner, Democrat Cheryl LaFleur, endorsed Powelson's comments on Twitter. FERC staff have indicated that the agency is moving forward with the proposal and will take "appropriate action" within the 60-day timeframe requested by DOE (as noted above "appropriate action" does not necessarily mean "substantive action").

It remains to be seen whether FERC will seriously entertain the DOE's proposal, it could very well reject it quickly and go about business as usual, or (more likely) it could open an alternative proceeding to see if capacity and resiliency issues can be addressed through a better vehicle. Secretary Perry has stated that his intent in filing the proposal was to "start a conversation." FERC is one of the federal agencies that is typically the least impacted by changing political tides, and we do not expect to see the type of radical change in direction that has been seen in other agencies, such as the DOE, EPA and Interior. Further, as described above, the commissioners have been telegraphing that they support markets and are unlikely to "blow them up," but they have generally acknowledged that there have been significant changes in the industry that have put new pressures on the markets that may warrant taking a new look at whether there are attributes that the market is not pricing now that should be priced. Earlier this year FERC conducted a two-day technical conference on the topic of how FERC's markets are impacted by state goals (such as increasing reliability and decreasing emissions) and whether FERC markets should remain completely independent of such goals, seek to accommodate them, or seek to accomplish them. Making predictions in the volatile scene of U.S. politics has become an increasingly dangerous game in recent months, but it seems that the most likely course of action for FERC to take regarding the DOE's filing will be to wrap it up into the ongoing considerations of the markets and establish a more robust rulemaking to consider whether any and all of the attributes that the DOE and states are seeking to promote should be priced in the markets, most likely through a technology-neutral mechanism.

Dentons is the world's first polycentric global law firm. A top 20 firm on the Acritas 2015 Global Elite Brand Index, the Firm is committed to challenging the status quo in delivering consistent and uncompromising quality and value in new and inventive ways. Driven to provide clients a competitive edge, and connected to the communities where its clients want to do business, Dentons knows that understanding local cultures is crucial to successfully completing a deal, resolving a dispute or solving a business challenge. Now the world's largest law firm, Dentons' global team builds agile, tailored solutions to meet the local, national and global needs of private and public clients of any size in more than 125 locations serving 50-plus countries. www.dentons.com.

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