Energy experts seek consensus on Clean Power Plan’s timeline, reliability fixes

By Emily Holden | 02/20/2015 08:18 AM EST

Two changes top the wish lists of regulators, state officials and electric companies tasked by U.S. EPA with cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector: a smoother trajectory for working toward 2030 goals and an escape hatch for any unforeseeable problems. But what exactly those revisions should look like is still up for debate.

EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan asks states to write their own plans for achieving individual carbon-reduction targets by 2030, but it requires them to show progress toward those levels between 2020 and 2030.

Those interim goals are the most criticized element of the draft rule, and they are the crux of concerns that the rule could cause electric reliability problems. EPA has repeatedly hinted that the interim goals will change, but the agency hasn’t explained what will replace them in a final rule due this summer (Greenwire, Feb. 17).


In a technical conference yesterday on the Clean Power Plan, representatives of reliability coordinators, state environmental agencies and utilities told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the interim timeline must be flexible but enforceable.

And they said any "safety valve" for avoiding reliability problems must be able to address a number of situations but can’t be a free pass for states.

States vs. EPA on interim targets

States advocate for writing their own plans for proving progress, but EPA might have trouble accepting that option.

The utility trade group Edison Electric Institute is working on a specific proposal for what EPA could replace the interim goals with, DTE Energy Co. Chief Executive and EEI representative Gerard Anderson told E&E after a conference panel yesterday (see related story).

"Most states, the vast majority of states simply wanted complete flexibility to define the transition as it suited that state," Anderson said. "It’s not clear that EPA and the administration will go that far."

EPA could also simply move the starting year to 2025, but that wouldn’t give states as much time to work on regional coordination, build power plants, and bulk up pipeline and power line infrastructure.

Anderson told FERC members that 11 states — including Michigan, where DTE operates — would have to achieve 75 percent of reductions by 2020 under the proposed rule. That would be just a couple of years after state compliance plans were approved.

5 ‘flavors’ of reliability insurance

FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur said testimony from witnesses at the technical conference — a who’s who of the energy world — showed five "flavors" of how to write a reliability safety valve for the Clean Power Plan. LaFleur said there is little precedent for this kind of backstop because the rule is so different from previous regulations, like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants.

"The reliability safety valve that was crafted in MATS was really quite specific … given in mind that [it] applied to specific plants," LaFleur said. "This is just such a different rule because of the breadth and scope and geographic scope of the rule."

LaFleur said the most spelled-out proposal, from the ISO/RTO Council, the association of regional grid operators, suggests allowing states to contact FERC and others when they need more time to work on state implementation plans (SIPs) and explain why they need more time. EPA then would make a final decision.

A second concept LaFleur described would be similar but more dynamic, allowing states that realize late in the game they need more time to request an extension.

Third, some suggested FERC could compare state and regional plans, or "put the map out and put all the SIPs next to each other and find places where they don’t jive," she said. FERC Commissioners Philip Moeller and Tony Clark have advocated for FERC to take this kind of formal role (Greenwire, Feb. 19).

LaFleur also said some wanted an "old-fashioned, dare I say, reliability must-run" backstop. A reliability must-run contract allows plants to stay in operation when they are otherwise due to shut down, in order to avoid power outages.

"We thought we were working toward our SIP, but now we’re not there … so we need an exception for this plant in some way," LaFleur explained.

Finally, some recommended a real-time dispatch option for operators to ask for an exception to violate state plans if they realize carrying them out might cause blackouts.

Planning for the unknown

Craig Glazer, the vice president of federal policy for grid operator PJM Interconnection who was representing the ISO/RTO Council, said all five reliability mechanisms might be necessary.

"Everybody’s for it, but nobody can define it," Glazer said.

States should do the upfront work to avoid reliability problems as best they can, but they also need a backup option if something goes wrong, he added.

"What you’ve described are five tools that can be taken out of the toolbox at different times," Glazer said, adding that "it can’t be a free pass, no one can come in and say I want to exempt my state the next five years because I just don’t want to do this."

Whatever EPA chooses should be written into the rule, not added on later, Glazer added.

Still, Anderson said the truly troubling reliability problems are those that are completely unforeseen.

"Reliability events rarely come from the place you anticipated when you do your plan," Anderson said. "They usually are the confluence of unforgiving environment and some unanticipated or unexpected event. And we are going to be making the environment substantially less forgiving as we work our way through this. It’s just undeniable."

Reporter Rod Kuckro contributed.