Grid warnings that halted $2B Texas cleanup draw fire
When federal judges last month slapped a stay on a U.S. EPA cleanup plan targeting coal-fired power plants in Texas, one factor loomed especially large in their decision: the potential impact to the electric grid.
Not only would Texas consumers end up footing the bill, but grid reliability would be imperiled “if plant operators close facilities rather than install or upgrade uneconomical emissions controls,” the three-judge panel on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the unanimous ruling.
The source of their forebodings was the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the independent system operator charged with keeping most of the nation’s second largest state from going dark. In a 2014 report, the council had warned that EPA regulations could cost the system close to half its coal-fired generating capacity. More recently, ERCOT predicted that the plan at issue in the 5th Circuit decision — intended in part to reduce pollution-related haze in two national parks — would have “significant” repercussions for transmission system soundness.
To critics, however, ERCOT’s track record poses some reliability questions of its own.
“Anytime EPA wants to do something, the claim from the industry and the system operator is, ‘It’s not going to work, it’s going to lead to serious reliability issues,'” said David Schlissel, who oversees resource planning work at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which favors a shift to renewable energy sources. “In general, these claims have just not been borne out.”
Schlissel was blunter in a court filing on behalf of two environmental groups allied with EPA in the haze case. Previous “doomsday” predictions have consistently been wrong, he wrote, on the effects of such regulations as the agency’s limits on power plant mercury emissions and curbs on air pollution that wafts across state lines.
ERCOT, although answering to Texas state regulators, is a private nonprofit with a board made up mainly of power industry representatives. In the course of an email and phone exchange, spokeswoman Robbie Searcy acknowledged that environmental regulations have so far left grid operations unscathed.
In one instance related to the 2011 Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, EPA’s final version allayed concerns that ERCOT had flagged in the original draft, Searcy said in an email. Regarding the limits on mercury emissions, the council did not raise specific reliability issues, she said, although it did mention those standards in the 2014 report, which explored the potential effects of an array of regulations.
Alongside a growing state economy that inevitably spurs power demand, ERCOT has more reason than most system operators to fret about grid dependability.
In industry jargon, its territory is a “power island,” with relatively few links to transmission networks that would let it tap electricity from sources beyond its borders. And when companies shutter generating units because of regulatory requirements, as opposed to economic forces, Searcy added, “ERCOT has fewer options available to support system reliability.”
The council’s views could prove pivotal in the bitter court battle over the haze plan, which pits power producers and Texas elected leaders against EPA. The plan, published in January, is supposed to improve visibility in Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains national parks, both located in West Texas, as well as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. Seven Texas coal-fired power plants would have to install or upgrade sulfur dioxide scrubbers by 2021; an eighth, owned by a cooperative, would be allowed to limit releases with controls already in place. Those steps would cumulatively cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 230,000 tons per year, by EPA’s count.
The cleanup can’t come soon enough for environmentalists who describe the plants as exceptionally dirty. Taken together, their SO2 emissions exceed the output from all sources in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana combined, lawyers for the Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association wrote in a brief on EPA’s behalf.