Nov. 16 2017 11:26 AM

RPA puts coal plants on life support; BWL plans to pull the plug anyway


The Trump administration is taking multiple steps to prolong the life of the nation’s aging coal-fired power plants, from reversing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan to intervening in the market and subsidizing coal plants. That won’t affect the Lansing Board of Water & Light’s plans to close its Erickson and Eckert plants, according to BWL spokesman Steven Serkaian. But as natural disasters consistent with climate change pile up nearly as fast as the scientific evidence, the feds are applying the brakes just when the train most urgently needs to leave the station.

Scott Pruitt, head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, announced plans last month to roll back the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era emissions standards aimed at reducing pollution from the largest emitters of greenhouse gases by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Serkaian said the Clean Power Plan was “not a significant factor” in the utility’s decision to retire the Eckert Power Station in 2020 and the Erickson Station in 2025. Together, the two plants generate 535 MW of power.

“Financial considerations to maintain an affordable supply of electricity were at the forefront of the decision,” Serkaian said.

He didn’t mention another factor that was at the forefront. In June 2014, the Sierra Club notified the BWL that it was about to sue for injunctive relief, civil penalties and litigation costs for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act from the Eckert and Erickson stations.

BWL denied that the plants were in violation, but it agreed to set hard, legally enforceable dates for closing Eckert and Erickson if the Sierra Club dropped its plans to sue.

The consent agreement was made public in August.

James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Economic Council, said the EPA rollback won’t have much impact in Michigan, partly because the state’s fleet of coal plants is so old. Eckert was built in the 1950s and Erickson was built in 1973.

“These plants are not economic in the energy markets anymore,” Clift said. “They’re moving to more efficient, newer plants, and that applies to the Board of Water and Light.”

Serkaian cited the high cost of maintaining the plants, the increasing loss of efficiency “even with investment,” the dramatic drop in the price of natural gas, a stable price forecast for gas, and a “significant downward trend in the price of renewable energy.”

But the impending rollback of EPA regulations is still of deep concern to Clift.

“It tells you that this administration is not interested in complying with the Clean Air Act,” Clift said. “Carbon is a pollutant they are required to regulate and they don’t appear to want to.”

Kate Madigan, director of Michigan Climate Action Network, said there are still “a lot of concerns” about the EPA rollback.

Pollution doesn’t respect state borders. “Other states around us are very coal reliant, like Indiana,” Madigan said. “The Clean Power Plan would have moved them to more quickly reduce their reliance on coal.”

Madigan noted that the EPA move to repeal the Clean Power Plan came in the midst of an unusually destructive hurricane season and an unprecedented wave of wildfires in California.

“A warmer planet has been linked scientifically to an increase in more frequent hurricanes and wildfires,” Madigan said. “It’s so short-sighted and harmful to take this step when we’re seeing the impact of climate change right now.”

A more recent, less well-publicized move by the Trump administration dismayed environmentalists in October.

On Sept. 29, Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed a “grid resiliency” program that, if adopted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, would boost compensation for coal and nuclear plants.

The proposed rule is part of a Trump administration effort to re-brand coal plants as “energy resilient” sources of power that are worth subsidizing, because coal can be stockpiled and used in an emergency, unlike intermittently available renewables or difficult-to-store natural gas.

Under the proposed plan, coal plants and nuclear plants with 90 or more days’ supply of fuel on site would be “compensated” for their “resiliency,” or their capacity to provide reliable energy in an emergency.

The rule urges the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “maximize reserve resource capacity for times of unusually high demand, including severe weather events.”

The proposed rule doesn’t mention the hurricanes and wildfires, instead citing the polar vortex of 2014 as the kind of emergency only coal and nuclear plants can handle.

Clift said the proposed rule “is not based in reality.”

“We have never had an emergency situation last for 90 days,” Clift said. “The polar vortex was a matter of weeks.”

The proposed rule would also reverse FERC’s longstanding policy of staying neutral in the energy market.

“It is completely opposite to everything they have been doing for the past 20 years,” he said.

To many environmentalists, the proposed rule smacks of hypocrisy. For decades, opponents of federal subsidies for renewable energy argued that the market shouldn’t be tampered with. Now that solar, wind and geothermal power are closing in on coal and gas in cost effectiveness, the Trump administration suddenly wants to put its thumbs on the scale.

“That’s very much what we’re seeing,” Clift said.

Serkaian said the Grid Resiliency Rule, even if it goes into effect, will not affect BWL’s “commitment to a clean energy future for the Lansing region.”

The BWL’s Strategic Plan calls for 30 percent clean energy by the end of 2020 and 40 percent by 2030.

He said that by expanding its clean energy portfolio and closing its coal plants, the BWL will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2030.

Madigan said the number “is really impressive, and that’s the kind of leadership we need to be seeing locally.”

The EPA will take public comment on the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan until noon Dec. 15, 2017, at https:// www.regulations.gov/docket?D=E- PA-HQ-OAR-2017-0355.

The Michigan Climate Action Network is gathering public comment on the EPA rollback at its website, Miclimateaction.org.