EPA power plant rule targets coal. Does that spell trouble for the grid?

By Peter Behr | 05/03/2024 06:59 AM EDT

President Joe Biden’s “zero by 2035” goal faces fresh concerns about electricity reliability.

Emissions spew from the coal fired Brandon Shores power plant.

Emissions spew from the coal-fired Brandon Shores power plant in Baltimore in 2018. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Piles of coal parked at the entrance of Baltimore Harbor are the gateway to one of the biggest fossil fuel plants in the mid-Atlantic region.

After years of public debate and litigation brought by the Sierra Club, the 1,283-megawatt Brandon Shores coal-burning power station is expected to close in 2025 under an agreement with its owner. If the plant retires, it will be another step in the nation’s decisive shift away from coal generation.

But Brandon Shores is also seen by some grid officials as a poster child for the threat to electric reliability posed by the quickening pace of closures of fossil fuel plants. And it illustrates the distance U.S. climate policy has to go to both usher polluting plants off the grid while guaranteeing electricity can be generated and shipped from elsewhere to meet rising demand. It’s a dynamic underscored by EPA’s power plant rule release last week, which calls for coal generating plants and large new natural gas plants to capture most carbon emissions by 2032 or get on a retirement schedule. The rules could be eased in grid emergencies.


“If that plant does shut down, we could be in big trouble. That can’t happen,” said Joseph Bowring, president of Monitoring Analytics, the independent market monitor for PJM Interconnection, the grid operator for the District of Columbia, Maryland and a dozen other Eastern states as far west as Illinois.

“We now have some plants scheduled for retirement that have the potential to create some massive reliability challenges,” Jim Robb, chief executive of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the interstate grid security watchdog, told a conference in March, citing Brandon Shores. “I don’t know if it’s going to come to a head this summer or if it’s next summer.”

Those potential reliability challenges were brought into sharper relief with the EPA final rule. It imposes costs on coal and newly built gas generators that don’t capture emissions, including the prospect of closure. Certain to face litigation, the rule forces the hand of power companies that have put off investment decisions for coal and gas generation.

Coal generation has plummeted nearly 60 percent from its peak in 2007, with the growth of gas, solar power, wind projects and battery storage accelerating the decline.

Brandon Shores, outside of Baltimore, poses particular challenges for PJM, the city and its suburbs. The plant owned by Talen Energy, based in Houston, is considered a particularly critical source of power when gas generation or renewable resources are unavailable or offline.

The power station also provides crucial voltage support for power flows in its immediate area, support that most wind and solar aren’t currently configured to do, Bowring told E&E News.

Bowring and other PJM market experts say the loss of generation capacity from Brandon Shores and the neighboring H.A. Wagner power station is a threat to electric reliability until more high-voltage lines are built to bring in more distant power. That will take until 2028.

The stability requirement can’t be ignored, Bowring said. If a plant fails or a power line goes down and voltage losses aren’t corrected, the problem can quickly turn into an unmanageable and cascading outage, he said. “You don’t want to get anywhere near there.”

Revisiting ‘zero by 2035’

Beyond operational issues, the pressure to keep existing gas- and coal-fired generation online longer has ramped up suddenly and powerfully from a new direction: the surging electricity demand from new data centers and manufacturing plants, supported by the Inflation Reduction Act, the bipartisan infrastructure law, and the CHIPS and Science Act, the administration’s legislative hat trick.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), grid operator in most of the state, has said that its estimate of peak summertime power demand in 2030 had soared to over 160,000 MW, an unprecedented 40,000 MW higher than the expectation just a year ago.

Similar off-the-charts growth predictions are erupting everywhere that new data centers are appearing, as the first wave of power-sucking artificial intelligence applications arrives. Manufacturing investment soared to an annual rate of $225 billion in February, double the level in 2021, according to Treasury Department data.

If the interstate grid is indeed entering what ERCOT now calls a “new era” of power growth in fast-growing regions, that could force reassessments of the 2035 zero-carbon grid goal and put new demands on utilities to decarbonize their systems, says Ernest Moniz, Energy secretary under former President Barack Obama. Moniz is chief executive of the EFI Foundation, a research firm supporting decarbonization policy.

“In the end, we’re going to need to come together around revised plans for the 2035 time frame,” Moniz said in an interview. “I think there is inevitably going to be a slower pace of decarbonization for a few years, certainly, relative to the [original Biden] plan,” Moniz added.

That will put the U.S. even further behind on a path toward the deep carbon reductions that experts conclude are needed to minimize the worst climate impacts on lives and property by midcentury, Moniz said. It will be up to utilities to come forward with plans on how to catch up, on a 10-year time frame rather than three to five years, he added.

But climate activists will not give up the “zero by 2035” goal without a fight. President Joe Biden made that steep commitment at a critical point in his 2020 candidacy to win the support of primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his climate action activists.

While climate policy supporters saluted last week’s EPA rule, they also insisted the administration move even faster, particularly in developing new standards for existing gas generators, the largest source of U.S electricity. Some climate advocates simply don’t believe the grid officials’ warnings.

“EPA must tackle carbon emissions from existing gas-fired power plants,” and soon, said Julie McNamara, deputy policy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program, in a sentiment widely endorsed by climate policy advocates.

The Brandon Shores saga illustrates the intensity of the electric reliability debate.

While Talen Energy intends to close the generating station, it would go along with a request to keep it operational as an emergency resource under specific conditions, the company has notified PJM. Talen Energy insists on receiving a guaranteed payment for the plant’s output, called a “reliability must-run” price, that justifies continued operation, it said.

Maryland environmental authorities would also have to agree, and the Sierra Club would have to accept a change in its negotiated plant closure agreement. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would also have to sign off.

We’ll see, says the Sierra Club. “Talen has just requested that FERC approve nearly $650 million for Brandon Shores to be available if PJM needs it for reliability between mid-2025 and 2028,” Casey Roberts, senior attorney in the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, said in an email. “This staggering cost shows that we need a better way to address short-term reliability issues than relying on coal plants on the verge of shutting down.”

Need for big new lines

Just as only a mountaineer knows just how steep the path is to a summit, the hard road to a zero-carbon grid in 2035 is real precisely because the Biden administration has pursued it.

As the Biden administration took office, a suite of detailed computer analyses appeared outlining multiple paths for hitting a zero-carbon grid in 2035 and a nearly carbon-free economy by midcentury — Biden’s second moonshot climate goal.

While the reports’ headlines declared the goal was possible, in footnotes and caveats the authors acknowledged the herculean lift ahead to overcome hard-wired commercial and political obstacles to a decarbonized grid. They highlighted estimates that the rate of high-voltage transmission line construction must double to deliver the necessary new wind and solar energy.

The administration has gotten some long-stalled transmission projects into construction and is putting a strategy for big new lines in place. FERC, with the support of Biden appointees, is preparing new policy to support big wires projects. But once those steps are final, a few months will remain before the 2024 presidential election, and new transmission projects still take five years to build as a minimum, experts say.

A transformative expansion of the high-voltage network has limited support among Republican leaders in Congress. And there’s no indication of any support from former President Donald Trump, the party’s presumed 2024 presidential nominee.

“You can’t get around the fact that you’re going to need tens of thousands of miles of new transmission lines if you want to build the hundreds of gigawatts of wind and solar and batteries that many of us predict are needed to achieve overall decarbonization goals,” Moniz said.

“We’re not on pace to build 50,000 miles of high-voltage lines in the next six years,” he added.

“We needed a significant grid expansion before everyone came to grips with the new power demand numbers,” said Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies.

A deeper study of the “zero by 2035” goal has been going on for months at the Department of Energy. The project is called the National Transmission Planning Study. One of its scenarios would trim the zero-carbon goal to a 90 percent carbon-free grid by 2035, leaving the final 10 percent to be provided by fossil fuels, according to materials and discussion in a DOE webinar last year. The study is due out later this year.

Shifting to a somewhat less stringent target would reduce overall costs, experts say. The price tags for advanced nuclear reactors, hydrogen hubs and long-term storage — technologies that could be critical to the 100 percent goal — are still uncertain.

What could take the place of the “zero by 2035” target remains an open question.

“When we create arbitrary timelines and arbitrary percentages that are useful slogans but are not connected to the operational realities of the system, that’s when I get really concerned about system reliability,” said Todd Snitchler, chief executive of the Electric Power Supply Association, representing merchant power plant operators.

This story also appears in Climatewire.