Red tape closes power plants before replacements ready

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(The Center Square) — Despite the key positions states like Ohio and Pennsylvania hold to solve future energy problems, shifting the power grid from coal and natural gas to wind and solar isn’t as easy as flipping a switch.

A cadre of Pennsylvania legislators trekked to Columbus for a joint meeting of three House and Senate committees from the two states to be advised by energy officials on PJM, the regional power grid to which both belong.

“In order for supply to keep pace with demand, we need as much new generation to find its way into the system as we possibly can,” said Asim Haque, senior vice president of state and member services for PJM.

PJM serves 65 million people across 13 states and is reforming its permitting and interconnection process — a longstanding concern that has delayed power generation projects in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Relatively speaking, PJM has done better than other regional grids: connecting a power plant into the grid takes about 38 months on average, but it can take 50 months for CAISO in California and 70 months for SPP in the Great Plains.

The problem is significant: PJM forecasts that 21% of current generation will be retired by 2030, but replacement projects aren’t guaranteed. The situation raises concerns for officials about producing enough power and keeping the energy grid reliable.

“Part of the reason we’ve been doing this road tour is this concept of avoiding policies that push resources off the grid until a replacement quantity has been added to the grid,” Haque said. “What can we do from a state/local perspective to try and add resources to the system faster?”

The status quo has worked against such an approach. Power plants aren’t getting shut down due to failure or end-of-life concerns. Instead, the shutdowns follow federal rules and policy choices, he argued.

Haque flagged 2030 as when PJM expects a “pretty big drop-off in resources” due to state and federal policies. He cited EPA regulations like the “Good Neighbor” rule (dealing with air pollution in one state drifting to another), the “Coal Combustion Residuals” rule (for coal waste disposal), and Effluent Guidelines (for wastewater discharge).

“There’s a lot happening on the federal side that’s pushing resources off the grid,” he said.

Jim Robb, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, echoed some of Haque’s concerns.

He explained energy policy as built on a three-legged stool: accessibility and affordability for the public, reliable and secure systems, and managing the environmental footprint of power generation.

“When we overemphasize one of those legs in the stool, it’s almost certainly to the detriment of the other two,” Robb said. “The grid is performing better than it ever has … at the same time, the risk in the grid is growing very, very quickly. I will describe this as a hyper-complex risk environment.”

Some of the challenges Robb warned against bring benefits. The growing demand for energy, he noted, showed the reindustrialization of the country. Electric vehicles drive the electrification shift, which could bring about more reliable and secure energy sources, he said, but also means that very large load demands are showing up in places not designed for that.

Others, however, are pressing problems. Retiring older assets requires replacing them for grid stability. Increasingly extreme weather conditions, Robb said, means that the grid needs to adapt to cold snaps and heat waves that are more dramatic and last longer.

Space heating that relies on electric heat pumps, and policies that ban natural gas, cause new problems and can make consumers rely on inefficient backups like electric strip heating. And security risks have created a “toxic soup of threat environments,” Robb said, both physical and virtual.

“Other than that, it’s a pretty simple time to be in the sector,” he said.

Though much of the debate over energy policy has pitted coal and natural gas against wind and solar, PJM saw them as locked in a complementary relationship.

“We have to assume that, in order to even meet some of these decarbonization objectives, we are going to need new natural gas,” Haque said. “I don’t know that I have read anything anywhere — study wise — that says we can achieve all of these objectives without new natural gas. That’s why we’re fixated.”

Legislators warned the public against assuming the energy system will work automatically.

“Our constituents, like ourselves, have been lulled into complacency with the fact that the lights always come on,” Ohio Rep. Dick Stein, R-Norwalk, said. “This complacency tends to make all of us quick forgetters.”

The future task isn’t what past generations had to figure out.

“We’re just not producing that reserve capacity that we’ve been living on and used to having at our fingertips for the last 75 years,” Pennsylvania Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, said. “We have a problem, and we have a serious problem. It’s not Pennsylvania’s problem or Ohio’s problem — it’s a countrywide problem that we need to face. And if we don’t, we’re on a downward spiral.”

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