Chatterjee on coal, nuclear push: ‘I didn’t handle it well’

By Jeremy Dillon | 07/28/2021 06:25 AM EST

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Neil Chatterjee appeared at a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy hearing yesterday. Francis Chung/E&E News

Departing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Neil Chatterjee said his handling of a Trump-era push to elevate coal and nuclear plants to boost grid resilience caused the issue to spiral into partisan politics.

The acknowledgment from Chatterjee — made during what is likely to be his final appearance on Capitol Hill in an official FERC capacity — bookends one of the Trump administration’s more controversial energy ambitions, even as the issue lingers under a new FERC docket.

“I bear some culpability for why the resilience docket moved the way it did,” Chatterjee said during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy oversight hearing yesterday.

“I had just come from spending a decade of my career working for leader Mitch McConnell on behalf of coal communities in Kentucky,” he said, referring to the Republican senator from Kentucky, “and the manner in which I handled [then-Energy] Secretary [Rick] Perry’s [notice of proposed rulemaking] on grid resilience, I didn’t handle it well, and it added this element of politics to what is a real issue.”

First pitched in 2017 by Perry as a way to bolster struggling coal and nuclear plants by rewarding the plants for their on-site fuel availability, the issue drove a wedge through the energy community over how best to define grid resilience and reliability (Greenwire, Sept. 29, 2017).

Democrats accused the Trump administration of propping up uneconomical but politically favored resources over renewable energy. Republicans, like Chatterjee, countered that the issue was needed to ensure grid reliability in the face of intermittent resources that could not be counted on for the highest-demand days (E&E Daily, Oct. 4, 2017).

FERC, including Chatterjee, ultimately rejected the proposal on a unanimous basis (Energywire, Jan. 9, 2018). Instead, the commission opted to open a new docket on the issue to study it further. That docket did not move further under Chatterjee’s tenure as chair.

Newly installed Chair Richard Glick (D) moved to close the docket earlier this year. In its place, the commissioners looked to establish a docket more focused on grid resilience, a response to climate change and more extreme weather.

“Perhaps after I depart the commission and this element of politics that I unfortunately injected into it is removed, the commission and my colleagues can work together with the staff to address what is a serious issue,” Chatterjee said.

Chatterjee’s term expired at the end of June, but due to commission rules, he is able to stay on at FERC until the White House names a new nominee to replace him, somerthing that has yet to happen. Chatterjee has said he will not stay on the commission past the end of this summer.

Congress has focused greater attention on the resilience of the grid following recent extreme weather crises, including Western wildfires and extreme cold in Texas, both of which left millions of people without power for days at a time.

House Democrats spent much of the oversight hearing yesterday pressing FERC officials to continue their efforts to better prepare the grid and pave pathways for the additional deployment of transmission assets that could bolster the grid against extreme weather.

Some lawmakers, like Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), pressed the commission on whether it intends to update reliability standards to account for more extreme weather.

Glick said, “We need to actually figure out what the weather situation is like,” highlighting a recent wildfire in Oregon that knocked out 4,000 megawatts of power to California because of a downed transmission line.

“Some of our standards are based on weather from 20, 30 years ago, and I think it’s clear that it’s going to get a lot worse, so I think we need to update the standards, and the [North American Electric Reliability Corp.] is looking is that as well,” he added.

As part of a broader infrastructure push, Democrats have been looking for additional avenues to deploy more transmission to unleash more clean energy onto the grid. Those efforts include additional authorities for FERC to overcome interstate disputes on proposed projects (E&E Daily, July 15).

Commissioner Allison Clements, meanwhile, pitched additional interregional transmission as a key tool to bolster grid resilience. “You have to help your neighbors,” Clements said as a lesson of recent grid crises.