FirstEnergy Asks Feds for Emergency Relief to Keep Coal, Nuclear Power Online

Mar 29, 2018

Electric utility FirstEnergy Solutions is asking the federal government for an emergency order to keep coal and nuclear plants operating across the Ohio Valley.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy sent Thursday, the utility said the power grid faces grave threats if coal and nuclear plants are allowed to close.

“The time for talk is over,” the letter states. “We find ourselves at a crisis point where significant baseload generation will cease to exist in [regional transmission organization] markets without quick and decisive intervention.”

Ohio-based FirstEnergy, serves 6 million customers across Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. The company is asking DOE to immediately grant an emergency order under a little-used section of the sweeping Federal Power Act. Under the law, the Energy Department’s authority to issue emergency orders is tied to situations including war or natural disasters, but the agency can also issue them if it more broadly serves the public’s interest.  

If granted, the regional grid operator, PJM Interconnection, would negotiate a contract to provide compensation to coal and nuclear plants across the 13-state region it manages.

The company cited a recent federal report that found the East Coast would have experienced widespread power outages from the recent “Bomb Cyclone” without electricity generated by coal-fired power plants. The report, published this week by DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, found that coal was the most resilient form of power generation during the 12-day storm. It also said removing coal from the energy mix could worsen threats to the electrical grid’s dependability during future severe weather events.

PJM sharply rebuked FirstEnergy’s claims stating there was “no immediate emergency.” In a statement, the grid operator defended the reliability of its systems and said it had both enough power supplies and that they are from a diverse mix of fuel sources.

“The potential for the retirements has been discussed publicly for some time,” the grid operator said. “In anticipation, PJM took a preliminary look at the effect of the retirements on the system. We found that the system would remain reliable. We have adequate amounts of generation available.”

 

FirstEnergy has announced a spate of plant closures over the next few years. The company plans to shut down the 1,300-megawatt coal-fired Pleasants Power Station in West Virginia early next year. FirstEnergy announced Wednesday  it would also close three nuclear plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio, which together provide more than 4,000 MW to the grid.

DOE Spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement that the agency has received the request and will go through the “standard review process.”

Murray Energy Corporation, which is a large coal supplier to FirstEnergy, praised the utility’s efforts to get an emergency order. In a statement, the company said emergency relief could have been avoided if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had granted DOE’s proposed rule that would have required coal and nuclear plants to keep three months of fuels onsite. The agency said the change was necessary in order to ensure the grid could handle future disruptions.

“As a result of FERC’s failure, critical power plants will close, thousands of American jobs will be lost, and the reliability, resiliency, and security of our electric power grids will be forever compromised,” Murray Energy said in a statement.

In a rare moment of unity, both environmental groups and fossil fuel industry group, the American Petroleum Institute, characterized FirstEnergy’s attempt to get emergency aid for its coal and nuclear plants as attempt to bolster the company’s bottom line.

“For FirstEnergy to cry wolf on the issue of grid reliability is irresponsible and is the company’s latest attempt to force consumers to pay for a bailout,” API Market Development Group Director Todd Snitchler said in a statement. “PJM is responsible for the reliability of the grid and if there is an emergency, PJM already has the tools to respond.”