The Climate Post: Decisions on Nuclear Plant Construction, FERC Directive Could Affect Grid’s Generation Sources

12/14/2017 02:28 pm ET

Over the last decade, market upheavals and the technological advances underpinning them have placed pressure on existing electric generation units and driven deployment of non-baseload generation, creating significant uncertainty about existing business and regulatory models. This uncertainty calls into question the fate of nuclear. The Georgia Public Service Commission on Monday saidit will decide December 21 whether to allow construction of two new nuclear reactors at the Plant Vogtle site to proceed or to call for the project to be canceled. Plagued by delays and escalating costs, the Vogtle reactors represent the only large-scale nuclear construction underway in the United States since abandonment of two reactors this summer by South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper.

Those earlier plant cancellations and the looming Vogtle decision highlight the uncertain future of the U.S. nuclear industry. As much as 90 percent of nuclear power could disappear over the next 30 years if existing units retire at 60 years of operation—the current maximum length of operating licenses. A study by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions explores how the potential loss of existing nuclear plants in the Southeast interacts with the region’s other electricity sector challenges—among them, increasing natural gas dependence, demand uncertainty, and emerging technology—and proposes steps states can take to address these challenges.

Nuclear plants, along with coal plants, would get a boost in wholesale power markets if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approves a proposal by Department of Energy Secretary Rick that would mandate that plants capable of storing 90 days of fuel supplies at their sites get increased payments for providing “resiliency” services to the grid. Proposed by Perry on September 28, the directive to FERC to change its rules was set to expire this week, but Perry has granted FERC 30 more days to make a decision on the proposal.

The extension request, made by newly sworn-in FERC chairman Kevin McIntyre, divulged that the agency’s public comment request resulted in more than 1,500 pieces of feedback from a wide array of energy stakeholders.

“[T]he Commission has sworn in two new members within the last two weeks. The proposed extension is critical to afford adequate time for the new Commissioners to consider the voluminous record and engage fully in deliberations,” McIntyre wrote in the letter to Perry.

Studies: Arctic Warming Unprecedented; Most Accurate Climate Models Predict Greatest Warming 

Two new studies point to the accelerating threat of climate change. One, an annual assessment of the Arctic released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), finds that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, a pace that holds national security and economic implications. The other, a study comparing the results of simulations from multiple climate models to satellite observations of the actual atmosphere, finds that climate models predicting the greatest warming are more accurate than those predicting less warming.

According to the Arctic Report Card, 2017 was the second-warmest year on record in the Arctic, behind 2016; sea ice maximum set a new record low; and the permafrost rapidly warmed. Most worrying to scientists, though, was the pace of change.

“The current observed rate of sea ice decline and warming temperatures are higher than at any other time in the last 1,500 years, and likely longer than that,” the report states.

The changes will affect the entire planet, but especially the Northern Hemisphere, by altering weather patterns, leading to reduced wind power and increased drought.

“The changes that are happening in the Arctic will not stay in the Arctic,” said co-author Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program. “These changes will impact all of our lives. They will mean living with more extreme weather events, paying higher food prices and dealing with the impacts of climate refugees.”

The NOAA report comes on the heels of a study published in the journal Nature suggesting that international policy makers and authorities are relying on projections that underestimate future warming—and, by extension, are underestimating the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to avert catastrophic climate change. According to that study, global warming projections for the end of the century could be up to 15 percent higher than previously thought.

“The basic idea is that we have a range of projections on future warming that came from these climate models, and for scientific interest and political interest, we wanted to narrow this range,” said study co-author Patrick Brown of the Carnegie Institution for Science. “We find that the models that do the best at simulating the recent past project more warming.”

According to the study, global temperatures could rise nearly 5 degrees Celsius by century’s end under the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s business-as-usual prediction for greenhouse-gas concentrations. Moreover, the analysis increases the odds that temperatures will rise more than 4 degrees Celsius by 2100, placing odds at 93 percent, up from 62 percent.

Clean Power Plan Alternative; More Hearings on Horizon

During his first congressional hearing since taking office in February, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that he is working on a replacement to the Clean Power Plan. Proposed to be repealed in October, the rule aimed to set state-by-state carbon reduction targets for power plants. No new details about the replacement rule were pressed for by the six subcommittee members, however.

If the EPA does not issue a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, it could hint that Pruitt might open up a legal battle over the 2009 carbon endangerment finding. During the hearing, Pruitt hinted that he may be skeptical of the analysis backing the finding, which found that greenhouse gases endangered public health and welfare and required the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

“In fact there was something done in 2009 that in my estimation has never been done since and was never done before,” said Pruitt. “[The EPA] took work from the U.N. [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC] and transported it to the agency and adopted it as the core of the finding.”

But as ClimateWire reported, the finding was informed not only by reports from the IPCC, but also from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, U.S. Climate Change Science Program and National Research Council as well as studies and reports from other independent research groups. In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rebuffed a criticism that the EPA had “improperly delegated its judgment” to the IPCC and other organizations in the endangerment finding.

In written testimony submitted to the subcommittee, Pruitt elaborated the three goals of his Back to Basics agenda: “Refocus the Agency back to its core mission. Restore power to the states through cooperative federalism. Lead the Agency through improved processes and adhere to the rule of law.”

Following Pruitt’s subcommittee hearing, this week, the EPA announced it will now hold three more hearings on its proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan—in California, Wyoming and Missouri—after the EPA was criticized for not conducting a transparent review process and holding only one public hearing over two days in Charleston, West Virginia.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

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