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Published on November 12th, 2017 | by Tina Casey


“The Capitalist Tool” Just Trolled Trump Over Coal & Nuclear Energy

November 12th, 2017 by  

If President* Donald Trump thought he could count on the Forbes media empire to help protect coal and nuclear power plants, well, he was wrong. In yet another sign that nobody likes coal, on Sunday, the self-described “home page for the world’s business leaders” published a long contributor piece featuring an interview with the lead technical author of the Energy Department’s notorious grid study, and she does not mince words.

For those of you keeping score at home, a contributor is not the same as a staff writer, and the Forbes piece comes with a disclaimer that “opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.” Still, it’s significant that the news organization formerly known as The Capitalist Tool would lend its media platform to an authoritative takedown of Trump’s energy policy.

What New Grid Study?

For those of you new to the topic, last spring, Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered a new grid study with the apparent aim of justifying new protections for large “baseload” power plants, primarily coal and nuclear.

A leaked memo ordering the study touched off a firestorm of pushback, even among fossil fuel stakeholders, and a leaked draft of the study found no basis for special protections.

Nevertheless, last month, Perry asked FERC to approve a new rate structure that would enable outdated coal and nuclear power plants to continue operating — at a profit, no less — even if more economical alternatives are available.

With the new contributor piece, Forbes has pushed a not-so-subtle argument against the new protections to FERC in advance of its final ruling, which is expected by December 11.

So, What’s Wrong With The New Grid Study?

The Forbes piece was written by longtime environmental reporter Jeff McMahon under the title, “Author Of DOE Grid Reliability Study Describes Being Pressured To Fault Regulations.”

The lead technical author, Alison Silverstein, is an energy consultant with a background in renewables. According to multiple reports, she was personally selected by Secretary Perry, who also has a strong background in renewables (in Texas). That alone should have raised some red flags among coal fans.

Do read the McMahon piece for full effect. For those of you on the go, it boils down to one basic point of contention: the Trump administration wanted to fault over-regulation — namely, the 2015 Clean Power Plan — for causing a rash of coal and nuclear power plant closures.

Silverstein did not find any such evidence in the data. The data indicate that a cluster of closures in the runup to the 2015 deadline involved plants that were already “failing economically.” They would have closed sooner or later, Clean Power Plan or not.

In Silverstein’s view, the cluster occurred because the deadline gave some plant operators an excuse to keep operating a little longer than they would have:

“That regulation date, the compliance deadline, is the edge of the cliff, and I’m just going to gun it and run this flat-out as fast as I can and get every possible kilowatt hour out of it before I have to shut it down—Boom!—and go out in a blaze of glory, literally. So that’s why you saw all those retirements at that deadline. It’s just common sense operational strategy not to piss away money.”

As for why the plants were closing, Silverstein agrees with the consensus view among energy stakeholders: cheap natural gas has been the main driver behind coal plant closures.

For that matter, the Clean Power Plan was challenged in court by “friends of fossil fuels” and never went into effect, but the coal plants keep shutting down, one after another.

Another Twist Of The Knife For Coal

Silverstein has a way with words, and in parts of the interview she seems to speak directly to FERC:

“The most important thing: the coal and nuclear plants that retired were old, really old, and really inefficient, and they had earned their AARP cards, and it was time for them to get off the playing field and go enjoy a nice retirement somewhere. A whole lot of these plants retired well before renewables got big.”

Silverstein also has a message for businesses that depend on grid-supplied electricity, which is virtually all of them:

“They cannot provide the essential resiliency and reliability services that we need, like voltage support, reg-up, reg-down, primary frequency response, secondary frequency response. Coal and nuclear plants are just not good at anything but spinning reserve.”

That message could also be aimed at the Department of Defense, which has been steadily disentangling itself from the coal and nuclear baseload model.

You can get a more detailed takedown of the final recommendations from Silverstein herself at Utility Dive, under the title, “If I’d Written the DOE Grid Study Recommendations.”

What Now, FERC?

Although Silverstein’s technical work went largely unchanged, the final version of the grid study includes a set of recommendations that supports Perry’s FERC proposal.

Silverstein stands by her work but she strongly disavows any connection to the grid study recommendations, which were written after she finished her part of the assignment and returned home.

Perry already appears to be distancing himself from culpability if the protections go through. Rather than going the normal procedural route, Perry exercised the Energy Department’s authority to place items on the FERC agenda.

That dumps the hot potato squarely in FERC’s lap. The grid study already makes it clear that taxpayers will foot the bill for running coal and nuclear plants, and Perry made sure to emphasize that point in a cover letter for the final grid study.

In the letter, Perry suggests that coal power and nuclear power plants should be protected for the sake of grid resiliency (even though they aren’t really helpful for that), but he concluded that “customers should know that a resilient electric grid does come with a price.”

Gosh, it’s almost like he’s begging FERC to ignore his own proposal.

Interestingly, the cover letter also leaves quite a bit of wiggle room for wind and solar:

“America is also fortunate to have a variety of fuel sources. We need to consider how to use each effectively while recognizing our differences and unique state and regional circumstances.”

None of those caveats made it into Perry’s September 28 letter to FERC, requesting that it create a new rate structure that takes into account the benefits of maintaining the nation’s fleet of coal and nuclear power plants.

In late breaking news, last Friday, FERC chairman Neil Chatterjee dropped word that the commission is working on a “short-term” plan to keep “at-risk” coal and nuclear power plants afloat pending a more thorough analysis of Perry’s proposals.

It’s not clear who’s gonna pay for all that.

Meanwhile, December 11 is just around the corner, so stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter.

*As of this writing.

Photo: Navajo Generating Station coal power plant via usbr.gov

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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