The vulnerability of the electric grid has become a topic of concern for experts, with many calling for steps to address weaknesses. But are coal-fired electric power plants critical to the reliability of the grid — so critical that their operation should be subsidized?
That would have been the impact of a Department of Energy proposal to subsidize power plants with a 90-day supply of fuel onsite. The rationale was that those plants might be better able to continue supplying power than other types of generators in the event of weather-related disasters. The big beneficiaries: coal and nuclear plants.
The idea was controversial from the start. A group of former heads of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which regulates power plants and would have implemented the DOE proposal — said that the plan would “distort” electricity markets and actually hurt grid reliability by scaring off investors.
Critics charged that the proposal was politically motivated — a payback for coal-industry support of President Trump. One research group estimated that the plan would cause 27,000 deaths over a 25-year period; another estimated that additional costs to ratepayers could be as high as $11.6 billion a year.
In the end, FERC unanimously rejected the DOE idea — and DOE was fine with that, saying the goal of its proposal was to start the discussion about improving grid resiliency.
I don’t think anyone would argue about the need to address vulnerabilities in the electric power generation system. But the grid reliability issues I’ve heard about involve the risks of aging infrastructure and cybersecurity. Bailing out uneconomic coal-fired power plants won’t help those problems. Beginning to tackle those issues would be a silver lining of the ill-advised DOE proposal.
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