DOE Proposes Outrageous, Massive Coal and Nuclear Bailout
By Miles Farmer
Department of Energy (DOE) Sec. Rick Perry just proposed a massive bailout for coal and nuclear power plants. The radical and unprecedented move is couched under a false premise that power plants with fuel located on site are needed to guarantee the reliability of the electricity system. The proposal relies on a mischaracterization of DOE's own recent study of electricity markets and reliability (discussed here), which if anything demonstrated that this kind of proposed action is not justified.
If adopted, the proposal would essentially ensure that coal and nuclear plants in regions encompassing most of the country continue to run even where they are too expensive to compete in the energy market. It would saddle utility customers with higher costs, while posing obstacles to the electricity system integration of cleaner and less risky energy sources such as solar and wind.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is still carefully analyzing the proposal, but below is a very preliminary take:
The proposal would bail out expensive and uncompetitive coal and nuclear plants
The proposal asks the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to take action within 60 days that would financially prop up "fuel-secure resources," which must have "a 90-day fuel supply on site enabling [them] to operate during an emergency, extreme weather conditions, or a natural man-made disaster." This requirement is aimed squarely at coal and nuclear power plants, which would generally be able to satisfy these criteria.
Many coal and nuclear units are very expensive and are having trouble competing in the wholesale electricity market (as discussed here). So the proposal asks FERC to bail out these power plants by essentially guaranteeing them profits and insulating them from competitive market forces. The proposal amounts to a massive subsidy that would ensure the plants continue to operate, rather than being economically retired when they are more expensive than other units (including wind and solar) that sell electricity at lower cost.
The proposal would radically reshape electricity regulation for most of the country
The rule would have a massive scope, covering regional wholesale markets where electricity is bought and sold to serve most of the nation's customers. It would apply to areas where the electricity system is operated by regional entities known as Regional Transmission Operators (RTOs) or Independent System Operators (ISOs), which administer competitive markets for electricity. The RTOs tell the more expensive plants not to operate when there's cheaper electricity available from other plants.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
As shown in the map, RTOs cover most of California, the Midwest and southern states in the middle of the country, as well as the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is not subject to FERC jurisdiction and would not be covered by the proposed rule, if adopted.
Secretary Perry's proposal would be a radical departure from the way FERC currently regulates electricity prices in these regions. Under FERC's system, electricity prices in RTOs are governed by competitive market forces. A power plant is only insulated from this system by FERC under extremely limited circumstances, where a detailed examination of the grid reveals that the plant is needed for reliability purposes. The plant is then guaranteed its costs of operating, but only on a temporary basis, until a replacement can be constructed.
The proposal would lead to higher energy bills and more pollution
Customers across the country would ultimately foot the bill for supporting these more expensive plants. While no credible analysis has been conducted of the costs (which can't even be done given the vagueness of the proposed rule), it is safe to assume that the toll would be many billions of dollars.
The proposal also would favor more expensive and risker power plants over cleaner and safer energy sources such as wind and solar power. Coal power plants emit a massive amount of pollution. They are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases causing climate change. Coal plants also cause an array of other problems, such as acid rain and asthma. And while low-carbon, nuclear energy poses myriad health and safety risks (discussed here).
The proposal is unjustified
The purported basis for the proposal is that "[t]he resiliency of the nation's electric grid is threatened by the premature retirements of power plants that can withstand major fuel supply disruptions caused by natural or man-made disasters."
But DOE's own reliability report found that all regions of the country have excess supply of energy resources needed to meet demand. Furthermore, while it included a brief discussion of the potential benefits of on-site fuel supply, it also highlighted examples of power plants with on-site fuel supply failing, such as coal plants that could not operate during the 2014 Polar Vortex when their fuel supplies froze in the extreme cold.
The lesson that no type of power plant is immune to weather-related disruptions was clear during the recent hurricanes. Nuclear power plants had to be taken off-line in preparation for Hurricane Irma. Natural gas plants and pipelines suffered disruptions during Hurricane Harvey, and the onsite coal pile at a W.A. Parish plant in Texas became so saturated with rainwater that the coal could not be delivered into storage silos, forcing the plant to switch to natural gas for the first time in eight years.
Nuclear Availability in Florida during Hurricane Irma.Data from SNL Energy, "Daily Nuclear Operations"
Ultimately, the proposal's justification is as flimsy as Secretary Perry's initial suggested basis for subsidizing coal and nuclear—that "baseload" is necessary for the system, a myth that has been thoroughly debunked (as discussed here and here).
DOE is asking FERC to rush to judgment
FERC has already adopted detailed regulations to ensure the reliability of the grid, and follows established processes to consider any necessary tweaks. As DOE's own report explained, these systems have worked to meet the industry's high reliability standards even as the mix of generation serving customers' needs has changed dramatically.
DOE is asking FERC to sidestep that normal process by adopting its radical proposal in a mere 60 days, a timeline that would make it impossible to conduct any of the rigorous analysis that would surely be necessary before making such extreme changes. DOE's proposal is so vague that FERC could not possibly adopt it as is, making it hard to see how FERC could possibly advance it in a manner that complies the procedural requirements for a formal rulemaking proposal.
FERC should reject Secretary Perry's proposal
Perhaps the only silver lining in Secretary Perry's proposal is that DOE has no independent authority to adopt this proposed rule, which is already eliciting pushback from leaders like NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. As discussed here, FERC, not DOE, is the agency primarily responsible for regulating electricity markets. FERC should reject Secretary Perry's outrageous and poorly thought out request.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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