Electric Grid Reliability Fears Remain in Wake of Climate Rule

Stakeholders and government officials are unsure about whether the Obama administration’s legacy climate rule will threaten the electric grid, according to the ISO/RTO Council, whose members include independent systems operators and regional transmission organizations.

Critics of the power plant emissions rules have long held that the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30 percent, would lead to more brownouts and blackouts. In an attempt to bed those concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency added a reliability “safety-valve,” or RSV, to the final rule released in early August. But there’s little agreement on whether the RSV actually helps.

The ISO/RTO Council, or IRC, rarely takes a position on major federal policies. Yet it was one of many commenters who asked EPA to make keeping the lights on a bigger priority.

Having had nearly a month to digest the rule, IRC hasn’t yet reached agreement about whether the last-minute safety valve satisfied its members’ concerns. Ray Dotter, a communications manager at PJM Interconnections, said Friday that “there is no joint position at the ISO-RTO Council on the Clean Power Plan or the reliability safety valve provision.”

“From PJM Interconnection’s perspective, we understand what EPA did given its other changes and will work to see that [the safety valve] works as intended in practice,” Dotter said. “There’s nothing more to be said at this point.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that regulates the sale of electricity, also recommended the addition of the RSV. The regulator safety valve, FERC argued, could allow states to request a temporary waiver to compliance plans in the event the CPP threatens electric grid reliability.

As it’s currently written, the RSV offers electric generating units the ability to operate outside of the plan for up to 90 days. In the event reliability comes under threat, power plants can apply for up to two 90-day noncompliance periods over the lifetime of the unit.

That’s not enough assurance for FERC Commissioner Tony Clark, who said after the climate rule published that EPA is operating out of bounds.

“EPA officials are not responsible for ensuring reliable, affordable power,” he said. “No one should think reliability and affordability are slam dunks, lest we deny the science of electrical engineering.”

On the other hand, FERC chairman Norman Bay said earlier this month that EPA is working with a trifecta of other departments to make sure reliability concerns are addressed safely and effectively.

Bay said EPA, FERC and the Department of Energy will have a “coordination document” that “will make reasonable efforts to monitor states as they develop and implement plans to meet CPP’s requirements and maintain awareness of any potential electric reliability effects.” Bay also said the relevant agencies will coordinate, as appropriate, to address reliability concerns.

Bay pointed to the successes of previous inter-agency coordination on a similar effort as proof that this part of the rule can work. EPA, DOE and FERC worked together in monitoring reliability during implementation of toxic emissions rules. In that case, Bay said, the agencies established a “successful working relationship.”

Paul Gutermann, a natural resources attorney with the law firm Akin Gump, said the RSV might make the rule more palatable to federal judges, who will ultimately decide whether the Clean Power Plan is legal. The addition of the RSV hampers the argument that the rule would have serious negative impacts on public access to reliable electricity.

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said earlier this month that “electric generators are reassured with a new reliability ‘safety-valve.'”

Critics maintain the safety valve does little to change the overall impacts of the regulation.”While a safety valve designed to address reliability crises is necessary, no safety valve can fix a poorly crafted rule that harms reliability as it is implemented,” said Scott Legal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, in a statement. “That’s like relying on an emergency brake after the accident is already under way. You need to prevent the accident in the first instance.

Morning Consult