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Friday, May 18, 2012
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Emerging Issues in the Electric Power Industry: Challenges and Opportunities in Meeting Clean Energy

By Guest Author, Beren Argetsinger, Pace University School of Law ‘13

Meeting clean energy goals, complying with environmental standards, achieving state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), and maintaining grid reliability require enormous resource and capital investment throughout the energy industry. The recent Energy Bar Association (EBA) Spring Seminar and 66th Annual Meeting in Washington DC offered insight into numerous aspects of these important issues, including the effects of shale gas and new EPA regulations on coal-fired electric generating units (EGU), challenges facing the integration of renewable energy resources, and a discussion of recent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) orders, including Order 1000. A summary of meeting highlights follows.

Coal Plant Economics

Rapid growth in shale gas production throughout the United States has led to the lowest natural gas prices in over a decade. Futures prices dipped below $2.00 per thousand cubic feet in April 2012 for the first time since September 2001, and the Energy Information Administration projects that low natural gas prices (in the $4- to $6-per-thousand-cubic-feet range) will continue for the foreseeable future. Low natural gas prices combined with increasingly stringent EPA regulations on power plant emissions have important implications for the electric power industry.

Kurt Bilas, Executive Director of Government Relations at the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), noted that out of the approximately 70 gigawatts of coal-generation capacity in the MISO service territory, 60 GW will need to retrofit or retire as a result of EPA’s Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS) and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, which is currently under stay). Out of that 60 GW, approximately 12 GW (representing over 10 percent of MISO’s total generation capacity) would have to retire.

With EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas rule, the economics for coal fired EGUs – both existing and new – are becoming increasingly marginal in competitive wholesale electricity markets. Further complicating the issue, the decision to retrofit or replace these units must account for the possibility that a significant retrofit of a facility could trigger New Source Review (NSR) and compliance with New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) under the Clean Air Act. Many operators are looking for greater stability and certainty for the long term, and natural gas is quickly emerging as the fuel of choice for new electric power generation.

Infrastructure Limitations

Some regions of the country already rely heavily on natural-gas-fired generation. In 2010 natural gas supplied over 45 percent of the power produced in the ISO-New England service territory, up from just 6 percent in 1990. In other regions, natural gas represents the second largest portion of proposed new generation (second only to proposals for wind). However, switching from coal to gas generation is complicated: new facilities must be constructed and pipeline transportation infrastructure must be in place to deliver the fuel.

In fact, the pipeline infrastructure and nature of the natural gas delivery contracts represent some of the most significant barriers to the transition. In regions such as the Northeast, natural gas is also used as a heating fuel in the winter months. Because gas generators generally take natural gas delivery on an interruptible basis, other customers taking delivery on a firm contract basis – such as the home heating market – take precedent when demand is high and pipeline capacity is full. Expanding pipeline capacity is the logical solution to this problem; however, this takes years of planning, environmental review, siting, permitting, and construction.

Compounding the issue for coal plants is the EPA’s 2015 compliance deadline for MATS (2016, if a state extension is granted). Many operators will choose to retire these old generators rather than upgrading them to meet the new standards. Without adequate replacement capacity in the system, a generation facility could be called upon to run for reliability reasons – putting it out of compliance with the law. The U.S. House of Representatives recently responded to this issue with the passage of H.R. 4273

Liability Exemption?

H.R. 4273 would amend the Federal Power Act (FPA) to exempt a generator operating under an FPA Section 202(c) emergency order from liability if it were otherwise in violation of federal, state or local environmental laws. While the principles contained in the bill are sound – dispatching a generator for emergency reliability purposes should not subject that generator to liability for non-compliance with the law – it opens the door for generators to subvert environmental policy and extend the date of compliance.

Opponents of the legislation have argued the bill would effectively write a loophole into the FPA that would delay compliance with EPA regulation. Further, the EPA maintains that Section 202(c) orders are rare and the legislation is unnecessary, given the other tools that EPA has at its disposal. While the fate of HR 4273 may be a bellwether for how Congress ultimately responds to EPA regulation in the electric industry, the long-term generation resource portfolio that will replace retiring coal units largely will depend on economic, technological, and infrastructure constraints. Public policy, such as state RPS or EPA regulations like MATS, CSAPR, and the proposed greenhouse gas rule, must be considered in regional transmission planning processes pursuant to FERC Order 1000.

Transmission Planning

In July 2011 FERC issued Order 1000 in an attempt to address challenges associated with transmission planning and cost-allocation. At the EBA meeting, former FERC Commissioner Suedeen Kelley noted that the promotion of competition in regional transmission planning processes lies at the core of Order 1000. Requiring the incorporation of public policy into the planning process should stimulate a more holistic assessment of transmission needs, costs, and benefits for transmission infrastructure. This is particularly important for the integration of renewables – which has a sort of “chicken and egg” conundrum associated with it. Renewable developers won’t build new wind turbines if there are no transmission lines to deliver the power to load, and transmission developers won’t build new transmission in the hopes that a wind farm will go up and energize the line.

The Midwest has vast wind resource potential that could play an important role in the nation’s energy portfolio over the long term. Texas, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Iowa have over 6,900 GW of combined wind generation potential. With only 46 GW of installed wind power capacity in the United States in 2011, wind has a long way to go to before it represents a significant portion of the nearly 1000 GW of the country’s total installed capacity.

Balancing Short-Term Market Signals with Long-Term Energy Policy

FERC Order 1000 fosters greater competition and inter-ISO/RTO cooperation in transmission planning, requiring the incorporation of public policy goals in the transmission planning process.  While this is a step in the right direction, comprehensive Congressional action is critical – but unlikely in the near term. That makes it all the more critical for states and regional entities to coordinate on clean energy goals and cost-effective solutions to meeting environmental standards while maintaining grid reliability.

Greater harmonization of state RPS, even if only among states within the same ISO/RTO service territories, could lead to more cost-effective renewable power integration and ease the transmission planning and cost-allocation process. While increased natural gas development will and must be part of our energy future, short-term market signals must be tempered by long-term energy policy goals, including increased federal attention to transmission and renewable energy development.

Beren Argetsinger is a joint-degree student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he is pursuing a MEM with a concentration in energy systems and policy, and Pace Law School.

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