Trump Said the Electric Grid's Under Threat, But Regulators Aren't Acting

(Bloomberg) -- It’s been more than a year since the Trump administration declared that coal and nuclear retirements were threatening the electric grid -- and regulators still aren’t rushing to the rescue.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has so far taken no public action to resolve what President Donald Trump and his officials have characterized as a grid emergency. In the meantime, the agency has received more than 200 comments on the matter, and shutdowns of coal-fired power plants have accelerated.

The agency’s inaction underscores just how thorny energy policy has become under the Trump administration. While the president calls for action, grid operators maintain there is no crisis to act upon. Even commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee, a Kentucky Republican who once called for an immediate, short-term measure to curb coal retirements, now urges patience as his agency prolongs an already year-long review of the matter.

Trump Said the Electric Grid's Under Threat, But Regulators Aren't Acting

“This is a really complicated issue. We want to do it carefully,” Chatterjee said last week. “We’d rather do it right than rushed.”

In the meantime, coal producers, power generators and grid operators are in a holding pattern, waiting to see if the government will fundamentally change the way they do business. Whatever FERC decides, someone will be unhappy.

“The political winds that created this docket -- I don’t know if they’re still blowing or not," said Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard University.

The concern is that, as long as the issue goes unresolved, there’s an opening for the White House to push another plan to bail out coal and nuclear plants. After the energy commission rejected one such proposal a year ago, the administration floated a second plan that tied plant retirements to national security. There’s been little movement on the latest effort.

In Limbo

"At the end of the day, this issue has not been resolved," said Gillian Giannetti, an attorney at the Sustainable FERC project. "It’s extremely important to not put a band-aid on an alleged problem because of concerns of particular types of generation."

With the agency split 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats, any resolution of this lingering debate may be some time away. According to Chatterjee, the commission is still trying trying to come up with a widely accepted definition for "resilience," a concept of grid security introduced into the agency’s lexicon by the first bail-out proposal. As described by the proposal, grid resilience depended largely on plants having on-site fuel, a notion refuted by many power generators and grid operators.

"We want to ensure that we appropriately assess and define what constitutes resilience," Chatterjee said last week, echoing statements he made more than a year ago.

Rich Glick, one of the commission’s two Democratic members, said of resilience that he’d seen little evidence “to demonstrate that’s really an issue,” and suggested it would be better to focus on the future shape of the grid rather than address a question that would have been more relevant 20 years ago.

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