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DOE Proposes Outrageous, Massive Coal and Nuclear Bailout

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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.

Miles Farmer is a clean energy attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.