Under direction of President Trump, the U.S. Department of Energy is working on an order to force the country’s grid operators to buy electricity from coal and nuclear plants. The order's stated objective is to minimize disruption if the grid—and more vulnerable natural gas pipelines—are taken out by cyberattacks and other threats, Bloomberg first reported last week.
The agency would invoke two laws—the Federal Power Act and the Defense Production Act—that it claims entitles the Energy Department to force grid operators to purchase energy from power generation facilities that are currently slated for “premature retirement,” according to an agency draft confidential memo that Bloomberg obtained Friday, which was circulated before a National Security Council meeting that day.
The purchases would be a “temporary stop-gap measure,” the memo states, while the agency works with the government’s five National Labs to identify “Critical Defense Facilities” served by “Defense Critical Electric Infrastructure” that must remain open to adequately protect the country.
“The nation’s security and defensive capabilities, as well as critical infrastructure, depend on an electrical grid that can withstand and recover from a major disruption, whether from an adversarial attack or a natural disaster,” the memo states. “That ability to recover, known as the grid’s resilience, in turn depends on the availability of robust and secure electric generation resources and their supportive supply chains.”
Neither the Energy Department nor the White House has confirmed that the draft is an official document, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Friday issued a statement that Trump has ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take “immediate steps” to help financially troubled coal and nuclear power plants, according to NPR.
“Unfortunately, impending retirements of fuel-secure power facilities are leading to a rapid depletion of a critical part of our nation’s energy mix, and impacting the resilience of our power grid,” Sanders wrote in the statement. “President Trump has directed Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to prepare immediate steps to stop the loss of these resources and looks forward to his recommendations.”
American power generators are expected to retire or announce the retirements of 16,200 megawatts of coal-fired and 550 megawatts of nuclear plant capacity this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). Nationwide, BNEF said, two dozen nuclear plants—representing nearly 33 gigawatts—are either scheduled to close or probably won’t make money through 2021.
“The plan cuts to the heart of a debate over the reliability and resiliency of a rapidly evolving U.S. electricity grid. Nuclear and coal-fired power plants are struggling to compete against cheap natural gas and renewable electricity,” Jennifer A Dlouhy writes in the Bloomberg article. “As nuclear and coal plants are decommissioned, regulators have been grappling with how to ensure that the nation’s power system can withstand extreme weather events and cyber-attacks.”
Supporters of the measure include coal magnates Joseph Craft of Alliance Resource Partners and Robert E. Murray, who emailed Bloomberg that the Energy Department’s action “is essential in order to protect the resiliency and reliability of our nation’s electric power grids.”
However, opponents contend that such an order would amount to a bailout or “a solution in search of a problem” because the grid could be backed up in a multitude of ways that wouldn’t cost ratepayers billions of dollars. Some of the most notable opponents are advocates for natural gas and renewable power, who told Perry that no emergency exists to justify the order because “power plant retirements are a normal, healthy feature of electricity markets.”
Even so, the Trump administration would likely prevail in court by invoking those two laws, according to Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard University.
“It’s going to be tough to get a court to question DOE’s factual finding—particularly if it relates to national defense,” Peskoe told Bloomberg. Tapping two statutes simultaneously also could give the administration more “legal room,” he said.
Meanwhile, energy experts contend that propping up coal and nuclear power won’t actually protect the grid. David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, told U.S. News & World Report that the country would actually be more secure if the grid was decentralized, particularly with solar panels on individual homes.
“Residential solar is the single most secure form of power we have in the United States: It’s secure both from a fuel supply side—no one’s blocking the sun—and a distribution side: it goes from roof into your house, so there’s no problem with the transmission,” Bookbinder said. “That is a secure energy supply.”