EPA Coal Cuts Light Up Washington

A meeting at the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) Washington headquarters yesterday lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most exciting sessions in the agency’s history. Buttoned up policy wonks, lobbyists, and power market experts showed up in droves—over 600 registered—to witness a discussion of what President Obama’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan presaged for the U.S. power grid. The beltway crowd was joined by activists for and against fossil fuels—and extra security.

Inside proceedings, about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans’ impact on power grid reliability, protesters against fracking and liquid natural gas exports shouted “NATURAL GAS IS DIRTY” each time a speaker mentioned coal’s fossil fuel nemesis. Outside, the coal industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity distributed both free hand-warmers and dark warnings that dumping coal-fired power would leave Americans “cold in the dark.”

As expected, state regulators and utility executives from coal-reliant states such as Arizona and Michigan hammered home the ‘Cold in the Dark’ message in their exchanges with FERC’s commissioners. Gerry Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Detroit-based utility DTE Energy, called the Clean Power Plan “the most fundamental transformation of our bulk power system that we’ve ever undertaken.”

EPA’s critics argue that the plan’s timing is unrealistic and its compliance options are inadequate. Anderson said Michigan will need to shut down, by 2020, roughly 40 percent of the coal-fired generation that currently provides half of the state’s power. That, he said, “borders on unachievable and would certainly be ill-advised from a reliability perspective.”

EPA’s top air pollution official, Janet McCabe, defended her agency’s record and its respect for the grid. “Over EPA’s long history developing Clean Air Act standards, the agency has consistently treated electric system reliability as absolutely critical. In more than 40 years, at no time has compliance with the Clean Air Act resulted in reliability problems,” said McCabe.

McCabe assured FERC that EPA had carefully crafted its plan to provide flexibility to states and utilities regarding how they cut emissions from coal-fired power generation, and how quickly they contribute to the rule’s overall goal of lowering power sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. (Michigan has state-verified energy conservation and renewable energy options to comply with EPA’s plans according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

McCabe said EPA is considering additional flexibility before it finalizes the rule, as early as June. EPA would consider, for example, specific proposals for a “reliability safety valve” to allow a coal plant to run longer than anticipated if delays in critical replacement projects—say, a natural gas pipeline or a transmission line delivering distant wind power—threatened grid security.

As it turned out, language codifying a reliability safety valve was on offer at yesterday’s meeting from Craig Glazer, VP for federal government policy at PJM Interconnection, the independent transmission grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic region. The language represents a consensus reached by regional system operators from across the country—one that is narrowly written and therefore unlikely to give coal interests much relief. “It can’t be a free pass,” said Glazer.

A loosely-constrained valve, explained Glazer, would undermine investment in alternatives to coal-fired power, especially for developers of clean energy technologies. “Nobody’s going to make those investments because they won’t know when the crunch time really comes. It makes it very hard for these new technologies to jump in,” said Glazer.

Clean energy advocates at the meeting, and officials from states that, like California, are on the leading edge of renewable energy development, discounted the idea that additional flexibility would be needed to protect the grid. They pushed back against reports of impending blackouts from some grid operators and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation(NERC). Those reports, they say, ignored or discounted evidence that alternative energy sources can deliver the essential grid services currently provided by conventional power plants.

NERC’s initial assessment, issued in November, foresees rolling blackouts and increased potential for “wide-scale, uncontrolled outages,” and NERC CEO Gerald Cauley says a more detailed study due out in April will identify reliability “hotspots” caused by EPA’s plan. At the FERC meeting, Cauley acknowledged that “the technology is out there allowing solar and wind to be contributors to grid reliability,” but he complained that regulators were not requiring them to do so. Cauley called on FERC to help make that happen.

Cleantech supporters, however, are calling on the government to ensure that NERC recognizes and incorporates renewable energy’s full capabilities when it issues projections of future grid operations. They got a boost from FERC Commissioner Norman Bay. The former chief of enforcement at FERC and Obama’s designee to become FERC’s next chairman in April, Bay pressed Cauley on the issue yesterday.

Bay asked Cauley how he was going to ensure that NERC is more transparent, and wondered whether NERC would make public the underlying assumptions and models it will use to craft future reports. Cauley responded by acknowledging that NERC relied on forecasts provided by utilities, and worked with utility experts to “get ideas on trends and conclusions” when crafting its reliability studies.

Cauley also acknowledged that they were not “entirely open and consensus based” the way NERC’s standards-development process was. And he demurred on how much more open the process could be, telling Bay, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The challenge from Bay follows criticism leveled at NERC in a report issued last week by the Brattle Group, an energy analytics firm based in Boston. Brattle found that compliance with EPA’s plan was “unlikely to materially affect reliability.”

Brattle’s report concurred with renewables advocates who have argued that NERC got it wrong by focusing too much on the loss of coal-fired generation and too little on that which would replace it: “The changes required to comply with the CPP will not occur in a vacuum—rather, they will be met with careful consideration and a measured response by market regulators, operators, and participants. We find that in its review NERC fails to adequately account for the extent to which the potential reliability issues it raises are already being addressed or can be addressed through planning and operations processes as well as through technical advancements.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Will Shuttering Coal Plants Really Threaten the Grid?

Does President Obama’s plan to squelch carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants really threaten the stability of the grid? That politically-charged question is scheduled for a high-profile airing today at a meeting in Washington to be telecast live starting at 9 am ET from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Such “technical meetings” at FERC are usually pretty dry affairs. But this one could be unusually colorful, presenting starkly conflicting views of lower-carbon living, judging from written remarks submitted by panelists.

On one side are some state officials opposed to the EPA Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut U.S. power sector emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Susan Bitter Smith, Arizona’s top public utilities regulator, argues that EPA’s plan is “seriously jeopardizing grid reliability.” Complying with it would, she writes, cause “irreparable disruption” to Arizona’s (coal-dependent) power system.

Environmental advocates and renewable energy interests will be hitting back, challenging the credibility of worrisome grid studies wielded by Bitter Smith and other EPA critics. Some come from organizations that are supposed to be neutral arbiters of grid operation, such as the standards-setting North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Clean energy advocates see evidence of bias and fear-mongering in these studies, and they are asking FERC to step in to assure the transparency and neutrality of future analyses.

The reliability controversy began throwing off sparks in October and November 2014 when NERC and some regional transmission operators sent initial feedback to EPA on its June 2014 proposal (to be finalized this July or August). The early feedback assumed that state compliance plans would force tens of gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power generation offline almost overnight with little action to compensate for the lost energy and grid regulation services. Not surprisingly, the studies described a pretty wobbly power grid.

An October 2014 reliability assessment released by the Southwest Power Pool, the grid manager for nine central states, assumed that 9 GW of its region’s coal-fired generation would close by 2020. The resulting power flows, SPP found, were so irregular that its simulation software was incapable of modeling them. This indicated, according to SPP, “voltage collapse and blackout conditions.”

NERC’s initial assessment, issued in November, foresaw rolling blackouts and increased potential for “wide-scale, uncontrolled outages.”

One energy lawyer writing in the utilities news site EnergyCentral compared the grid experts issuing these blackout warnings to Paul Revere sending his storied light signals and saddling up to make history.

Critics, however, cried foul. European grid operators already deliver power more reliably than their U.S. counterparts while displacing conventional power plants with high levels of renewable energy. And worst case scenarios such as NERC and SPP’s flew in the face of prior detailed U.S. grid studies showing it capable of following the Europeans’ lead.

John Moore, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who represents a coalition of environmental groups at today’s FERC meeting, citesa 2013 study of coal reductions on Texas’ grid by the Cambridge, MA-based Brattle Group. Brattle’s simulations found no reliability impact, even in scenarios where most of its coal-fired generation was shuttered and renewables met over 40 percent of demand.

Moore argues that NERC and SPP systematically ignored the flexibility and multiple compliance options that EPA’s Clean Power Plan offers to states. For example, the plan requires states to deliver interim CO2-reductions over the decade that begins in 2020, not by 2020.

Rob Gramlich, senior vice president for government affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, says the studies ignored modern wind farms’ capacity to deliver the grid regulation that conventional plants currently provide. As he puts it in his written comments: “Some analyses being done are truly ‘garbage-in/garbage-out’ exercises using outdated assumptions about clean energy.”

The enhanced capabilities of wind power plants are quickly spreading to solar power plants. In fact, even rooftop solar systems are getting upgraded inverters that can help grids ride-through frequency and voltage faults and even dynamically regulate grid voltage.

Both Moore and Gramlich call on FERC—which oversees NERC and the regional grid operators—to ensure that these organizations’ grid studies are transparent, neutral and authoritative. “FERC needs to make sure… that NERC’s and the regional authorities’ studies do not unduly represent the interests of a particular segment of the electric power industry,” writes Gramlich in a thinly-veiled reference to the coal sector.

U.S. Department of Energy’s representatives will also have EPA’s back today, bearing a freshly-released report that has “shot down a key argument against President Obama’s climate plans” according to the Washington Post. The report suggests that natural gas infrastructure can easily supply plenty of natural gas to replace shuttered coal-fired generation.

DOE’s optimism rests on the fact that gas production is now more widely distributed across the country, as well as the potential to boost throughput in existing pipelines. As a result even high gas demand cases can be met by adding new gas pipelines over the next 15 years no faster than was achieved by 1998 through 2013.

Grid operators may be yielding under the pushback and accusations of bias. The prepared remarks for NERC’s CEO argue that “deeper assessment is needed to determine the time requirements and potential risks to reliability” posed by EPA’s plan. Talk of blackouts is gone, replaced by a promise to issue more detailed assessments in the months ahead.

If there is an area where most of the parties agree, it is that expanded grid capacity to share renewable energy within or even between regions will be one of the keys to slashing power sector carbon emissions. Look for talk today about how FERC can cajole or command states and utilities to work together to get lines built.

Failure to build new transmission may not black-out the grid, but most studies suggest that it will drive up the cost of compliance. When the wind blows, the resulting power needs a place to go, and the bigger the area it can serve the lower the likelihood that it will be wasted.

Transmission experts would like to see the U.S. add long-distance high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines of the sort that Germany, Norway andChina are building, or even extra-high-voltage AC lines overlaid on the existing grid. The problem is getting all of the grid players who benefit to pay a share of the costs, says Gramlich.

Gramlich says recent interstate capacity expansions in SPP’s territory and in the Midwest show that the U.S. power industry is figuring out how to get states to cooperate on regional lines. He credits regional transmission planning initiatives mandated by FERC, and recent court victories that show FERC has the authority to drive through new transmission—powers that FERC must now use to drive inter-regional transmission lines. As he writes in his statement: “FERC must not hesitate to use this authority.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks

Context is everything in understanding the U.S.-China climate deal struck in Beijing by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. The deal’s ambitions may fall short of what climate scientists called for in the latest entreaty from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but its realpolitik is important.

Obama and Xi’s accord sets a new target for reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. And for the first time sets a deadline for China’s rising GHGs to peak: 2030. This is potentially strong medicine for cooperation, when seen in the context of recent disappointments for global climate policy. Continue reading

EU Climate Summit Commits to 2030 Carbon Cuts

European leaders wrapped up a two-day climate summit in Brussels last week with a deal to cut the European Union’s total greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels. This would continue a downward trend – the EU is already on track to meet a 20 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020 – but the agreement is weak relative to Europe’s prior ambitions to confront climate change.

Investors in green tech pushed aggressively for the deal, seeking a longterm signal that the European market will continue to reward advances in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy production. The deal is also a shot in the arm for the Paris global climate talks, scheduled for December 2015, which will seek to achieve the decisive binding global targets for greenhouse gas reductions that failed to emerge from the 2009 Cophenhagen climate talks.

What the deal lacks is specificity and ambition regarding the mechanisms by which European countries are to achieve the carbon reduction. “Key aspects of the deal that will form a bargaining position for global climate talks in Paris next year were left vague or voluntary,” reported The Guardian. Continue reading

NASA Launches its First Carbon-Tracking Satellite

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

It’s been a rough birthing process for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite program, which promises global tracking of carbon dioxide entering and leaving the atmosphere at ground level. Five years ago the first OCO fell into the Antarctic Ocean and sank, trapped inside the nose cone of a Taurus XL launch vehicle that failed to separate during launch. The angst deepened yesterday when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scrubbed a first attempt to launch a twin of the lost $280-million satellite, OCO-2, after sensors spotted trouble with the launch pad’s water-flood vibration-damping system less than a minute before ignition.

But this morning OCO’s troubles became history. At 2:56 a.m. PDT a Delta II rocket carrying the OCO-2 satellite roared off the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. According to JPL, the OCO separated from the Delta II’s second stage 56 minutes later and settled into an initial 690-kilometer-high orbit. If all goes well it will maneuver into a final 705-km orbit over the next month, putting it at the head of an international multi-satellite constellation of Earth-observing satellites known as the A-Train. Continue reading

Two REAL Carbon-Capturing Coal Power Plants

The IPCC recently stated that failure to deploy technology to capture carbon emissions from coal would double the cost of stopping climate change. Two coal-fired power plants nearing completion in Saskatchewan and Mississippi will be the first in the world to actually prove the technology, capturing their CO2 emissions and store that bolus of greenhouse gases underground.

You can read about how they will do it in my latest piece for Technology Review. One point dropped from that story bears stressing. Part of what makes the extra cost of carbon capture feasible for these plants is that they have buyers for their CO2: oilfield operators who will use the stuff as a solvent to loosen up petroleum stuck in aging oil wells. That means the CO2 may not be permanently trapped underground warns Sarah Forbes, a carbon capture expert at the Washington-based World Resources Institute.

In Canada, however, expectations are higher according to Robert Watson, CEO of SaskPower, the utility completing the coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan. Watson told me that the oilfield operator taking his plant’s CO2 must ensure that any CO2 that comes back to the surface with produced oil is recycled back underground: “They’re going to have to assure the government that they can account for all of the CO2 they use all of the time.”

Sniffing Gas: White House Taps ARPA-E to Boost Methane Detection

Gasbot 2.0. Photo: Victor Hernandez

Gasbot photo: Victor Hernandez

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum we spotlight the methane emissions overlooked by the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, and the satellite-based detector launching next year to map this “missing methane.” Last week the White House acknowledged EPA’s missing methane problem, and laid out a strategy to combat it. While promising to improve EPA’s inventory, including more use of top-down methane measurement, the White House also promised federal investment in ground-based methane sensing to plug leaky natural gas systems thought to be the source of much of the missing methane.

Action can’t come soon enough according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on Monday unveiled its latest report onClimate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The IPCC said “widespread and consequential” impacts are already visible and world leaders have only a few years to change course to avoid catastrophic warning. Methane is a major contributor according to the scientific body’s update on the physical basis for climate change, released last fall, which deemed methane to be up to 44 percent more potent as a warming agent than previously recognized. Continue reading