Where Will You Be When the Lights Go Out?

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The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would raise utility prices and threaten the grid’s reliability.

By Kevin Cramer
Source: WSJ 
Dec. 10, 2014 – Pushback against the Obama administration’s complex Clean Power Plan—which would reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30% in 2030 from 2005 levels—has mostly focused on its staggering cost. NERA Economic Consulting, for instance, estimates the plan will increase the nationwide average price of electricity 12% to 17% over 15 years. But a pair of recent reports present an even more ominous picture. Not only will electricity cost more, Americans might not be able to get it when they most need it.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), a regulatory authority that monitors the U.S. and Canadian power systems, released a study on Nov. 12 concluding that the long-term reliability of the U.S. grid in some areas is already at risk. Because of rapid shifts to renewable and natural-gas generation, combined with closures of coal-fueled power plants due to existing Environmental Protection Agency regulations, “reserve margins” in the Midwest, New York and Texas have reached dangerously low levels—meaning an increased likelihood of brownouts and blackouts in the coldest weeks of winter and the hottest days of summer.

This analysis of the grid’s long-term reliability left out the potential impact of the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would force even more coal-fueled power plants to close. A separate NERC report, released one week earlier on Nov. 5, pointed out that the plan’s compliance deadlines for reducing carbon emissions were not realistic when considering how long it takes to build new gas pipelines and electricity transmission lines necessary for new and existing renewable and natural-gas plants to serve customers previously served by coal plants.

More precisely, NERC pointed out that the EPA’s estimates for continuous 1.5% energy efficiency gains each year are unsubstantiated, specifically stating, “this sustainability is not supported by any peer-reviewed or technical studies of energy efficiency potential.” This creates an incentive to close even more coal-fueled power plants to meet carbon-dioxide reduction requirements not actually attained by energy efficiency, posing even greater risks to the availability of electricity throughout the U.S.

These warnings are worth paying attention to. NERC is not a special-interest group. It is a nonprofit, nonpartisan body of experts in the engineering and operation of power grids. They are the architects of the miracle we take for granted every time we flip a switch and electricity instantaneously appears from generating sources hundreds of miles away.

EPA personnel are environmental regulators, not electrical engineers, and have no experience in or knowledge of the construction and operation of power grids. But it is inexcusable that the agency failed to heed the advice of those who do have such expertise. The administration’s Clean Power Plan will remake an enormous sector of the U.S. economy, affecting almost every industry and every consumer. It is irresponsible in the extreme that this plan has been put forth without due consideration of the risk it poses to the reliability of the nation’s electricity supply.

Billions of dollars and decades of time have been invested in building an electricity infrastructure that undeniably works. Yet the EPA would replace it with expensive and uncertain measures to accomplish reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions that won’t even move the needle on climate change globally. The consequences could be catastrophic if the transition results in blackouts and brownouts during extreme weather conditions or other emergencies when electricity is needed most.

Of course, the anti-carbon crowd and the current EPA bureaucrats won’t be held accountable if the Clean Power Plan disrupts the future reliability of the grid. In any case, this disruption won’t be felt for several years, most likely when the Obama administration is history. But whoever is occupying the Oval Office, regardless of political party, will not find it a pleasant place to be when the lights start flickering.

Mr. Cramer, a Republican, is a U.S. congressman from North Dakota. As a public-service commissioner in North Dakota from 2003-12, he regulated the electrical utilities industry.