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Concerns Raised Over Boosting Grid Reliability

A recent nonpartisan study found coal and nuclear power proved more, not less, vulnerable during severe winter storms. (Getty Images)
A recent nonpartisan study found coal and nuclear power proved more, not less, vulnerable during severe winter storms. (Getty Images)
November 10, 2017

DENVER – A federal proposal to boost the reliability of the power grid would cost billions and do little to make the grid more stable, according to research.

The U.S. Department of Energy says the subsidy for coal and nuclear plants that stockpile 90 days of fuel would ensure electricity in emergencies.

But according to a recent nonpartisan study, the plan would cost taxpayers more than $10 billion a year. And the research claims it was coal plants that failed during the 2014 polar vortex and this year's Hurricane Harvey.

David Schlissel, director of resource planning analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, says power lines are much more vulnerable than, say, renewables on the Gulf Coast.

"Most outages that people experience in their homes or businesses are caused by the transmission or distribution system," he explains. "Hurricane Harvey hit in Texas, where there's 5,000 megawatts of wind. None of the turbines fell. They weren't damaged."

Comments on the proposal from the Union of Concerned Scientists and others point out it was fossil-fuel and nuclear plants that went offline during 2012's Superstorm Sandy. Critics describe the plan as a thinly-veiled, multi-billion-dollar subsidy for those industries.

According to the DOE, more than 500 coal-generating units have closed since 2002, and eight nuclear reactors announced they were closing last year. Schlissel says with cheap natural gas, wind and solar now on the market, those plants just can't compete.

"Plants that are not economic to continue operating will be subsidized, and that's what this proposal by the administration intends to do, is put a thumb on the scale," he says.

He notes that the big historical blackouts on the East Coast were caused by failures in the transmission and distribution system.

Schlissel also says renewables can be more decentralized and much less dependent on those power lines. He says at a time when there is plenty of electricity available for the grids, the DOE proposal as an expensive solution in search of a problem.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO