Sen. Murkowski Raises Stakes on Reliability Issues

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Last month, Senator Lisa Murkowski released an energy white paper that, in her words, “presents the case for greater awareness and engagement on electric reliability.” The piece echoes the concerns of many that EPA regulations threaten to seriously jeopardize electricity reliability.

Murkowski serves as Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Energy and NaturalResources. She is the only Republican senator from a West Coast state on that committee.


Read Senator Murkowski’s White Paper Here

The senator’s white paper, entitled Power the Future, points out what many in the public have taken for granted – that U.S. citizens have long enjoyed a stable, reliable electric grid system. Despite the fact that the American grid provides more power to more people than any other network of its kind, blackouts in this country are extremely rare. This is because the U.S. energy portfolio is diverse, counting on a group of fuels – coal, natural gas, and nuclear namely – to meet demand.

The Energy Information Administration still projects that coal, natural gas, and nuclear power will continue to play meaningful roles in the energy mix. However, these projections are subject to change, especially as EPA continues to introduce additional rules and regulations. As PACE has pointed out before, EPA has clearly targeted coal plants with its proposed emissions regulations. Hundreds of coal-fired plants have already closed, and EPA’s proposed regulation for new power plants would make it virtually impossible to build new coal-fired generation.

In fact, as much as 20% of existing coal-fired power capacity could be retired within ten years. That generation will have to replaced with something, but with what? The answer isn’t clear, and the recent polar vortex gave us a good illustration that we had better find an answer quickly. During the recent frigid weather, one American utility was running 89% of its coal-fired capacity that is slated for retirement next year. Likewise, nuclear plants operated at 90% capacity during that time. With more pressure on coal and fading optimism for significant nuclear on the grid in the near term, the numbers don’t add up. As the white paper points out, the federal government may be in line for a failing grade in retirement math.

Murkowski argues that the concern is not any one particular rule or regulation, but that “it is the accretion of rules and the process by which they are unrelentingly proposed and implemented, as if in a vacuum.” The senator’s assessment is right. If the future of coal were a piñata, EPA has given itself a dozen or so swings.

In the end, the senator’s paper argues, the current process of proposing environmental regulations does not fully take into account reliability. She proposes that EPA work more closely with groups like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to closely examine the potential impacts of these rules. EPA examines the impact of specific rules but does not examine the impact of its rules in concert with one another. That could be a costly oversight.

In Senator Murkowski’s words, “the Federal Government simply cannot afford to ignore this red flag and risk failing the test of electric reliability by refusing to examine the impacts of its own policies.”