Offer ‘concrete ideas’ for electric reliability safety valve — EPA’s McCabe

By Rod Kuckro | 02/19/2015 08:07 AM EST

If states want U.S. EPA to build into its proposed Clean Power Plan a mechanism to protect against power outages and ensure reliable electricity service — a so-called safety valve — then regulators and power industry officials need to draw that out in detail, the agency’s top air quality official said this week.

"Let’s put some concrete ideas around that. How does time help with the reliability issue?" said acting EPA air chief Janet McCabe, speaking in Washington, D.C., at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ winter meetings. "The more specific people can be about those issues that are fully in front of us, that’s information that we can use."

Her comments were the latest indication that even though the formal comment period for EPA’s proposed regulations for cutting power plant carbon emissions closed Dec. 1, the agency wants to continue the conversation over the rule.


They were also a response to fierce complaints by some state electricity regulators this week that the targets set by EPA for emissions reductions are unworkable (E&ENews PM, Feb. 17). EPA’s overall goal is to reduce power plant carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The idea of a safety valve, which would protect the continued operation of a power plant for a period of time if it were deemed essential to keep the lights on, is not new. But it has gained prominence among critics of the Clean Power Plan as a way to respond to a local or regional inability to build new generation, a gas pipeline or a transmission line in time to meet EPA’s deadlines under the final rule to be issued later this summer.

One of those commissioner critics, Kenneth Anderson of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, suggested that maybe regional grid operators, such as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, should be allowed to grant critical power plants a waiver to operate for a time, even if only seasonally to meet peak demand.

Philip Moeller, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, spoke up in support, as well. "That’s why I like the concept of a safety valve — somewhat like we did with [the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule] if a [generation] unit is really needed."

But there would need to be an "open, transparent debate among the engineers as to where it’s needed, how long it’s needed and why."

Moeller didn’t say where that open, transparent debate might occur if EPA were to provide for a safety valve. But that might become clearer today when FERC hosts an all-day technical conference on electric reliability and other aspects of the Clean Power Plan.

Nearly 30 panelists will present their views, and one of the questions posed by FERC asks them for feedback on available tools for addressing operational issues that could arise as coal plants are powered down, more gas is brought online and intermittent sources of electricity are integrated into the grid.

Also, the agency wants stakeholders to weigh in on what its role might be. Both Moeller and FERC Commissioner Tony Clark favor a formal role for the agency, such as having it review state or regional compliance plans filed with EPA (EnergyWire, Dec. 5, 2014).

McCabe told the NARUC audience that she’s been "floored" by the "factually rich" nature of the comments that were filed.

"Clearly, timing and the interim goals are maybe the pre-eminent issue that we’re hearing about," McCabe said. The interim targets in the proposed rule were developed "based on our understanding at the time of the proposal about what was workable."

"We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of input — very fact-based — from people who know what they’re doing, who are in this business, who are pointing out ways in which we didn’t get that right," he said.

So the concerns about timing "is very, very much on the table," McCabe said, echoing sentiments expressed earlier Tuesday by her boss, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

"This is all very important and rich fodder for us to look at before we finalize the rule. This is not a final rule — it is a proposal," she said.

McCabe also telegraphed that EPA is dialed in on comments regarding the need to preserve and maybe expand the nation’s nuclear generation fleet.

"We’ve heard significantly that the approach we took in the proposal with respect to existing nuclear is not one that people find to be workable or appropriate," she said.

"We got a lot of very specific input on that, which we’re looking at very seriously. I’m not in a position to let you know how we’re going to sort through all that, but we are looking at it very, very carefully," she said.