Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM reported Monday that FirstEnergy’s plan to close three nuclear power plants by 2021 won’t threaten grid reliability and stability — another piece of evidence against the utility’s claim that it needs federal emergency bailouts or protections to keep the money-losing plants open. 

But PJM also announced plans to test its 13-state transmission grid for “fuel security vulnerabilities,” such as fuel supply shortages during extreme weather or cyberattacks. The study could feed into its broader review of how to compensate generators for the reliability they provide the grid. 

The first piece of news was welcomed by clean energy advocates and consumer groups who’ve been fighting FirstEnergy’s attempts to bail out its generator business. FirstEnergy has sought several forms of federal emergency bailouts for its struggling power plant fleet, including a failed push by the Trump administration to classify them as critical to grid reliability, and a demand to keep them open using emergency powers created for times of war and natural disaster. 

FirstEnergy’s plan to close its two Pennsylvania plants and one Ohio plant would certainly deliver a blow to PJM’s carbon balance, dropping nearly twice as many carbon-neutral nuclear megawatts from its generation mix as its total amount of wind and solar megawatts to date. 

But PJM’s “Generation Deactivation Notification Update,” released in advance of the Thursday meeting of an advisory committee meeting, found that the closures would not threaten reliability across the locational deliverability areas (LDAs) covering parts of Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

"Sufficient transmission margin remains to import emergency power into impacted LDAs,” the report noted, meaning that enough transmission capacity exists to power those regions’ needs from outside. The same went for dealing with a so-called “N-1-1” condition, or the threat of two simultaneous outages. 

And while closing the power plants would have an affect on “generator deliverability,” or the ability for those regions to export power to others, PJM also noted that “transmission upgrades are required to preserve deliverability of all existing PJM capacity resources under various contingency conditions” — or, in other words, that investments are needed regardless of the closure plans. 

These findings align with PJM’s broader assessment of its future grid reliability as more and more coal and nuclear plants find themselves economically uncompetitive in the face of flat demand, cheap and plentiful natural gas, and a rising share of zero marginal-cost clean energy. 

It also aligns with the assessment of clean energy and environmental groups, natural gas trade groups and utilities that have invested in more natural gas generation, and the majority of energy regulators and economists, who have fought FirstEnergy’s and the Trump administration’s attempts to bail out coal and nuclear interests, largely in the PJM region. 

“This is yet another reason for the Department of Energy to deny FirstEnergy’s request for a bailout,” John Moore, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sustainable FERC Project, said in a statement. “There is more than enough power supply in the region to serve customers into the next decade. FirstEnergy’s plea for a profit guarantee would [saddle] customers with billions of dollars [in costs] without getting any reliability benefit in return.” 

Worries over PJM's fuel security assessment 

PJM’s new fuel security assessment received a cooler response from clean energy groups. 

PJM CEO Andy Ott said in a Monday call with reporters that the 65-million-customer grid authority planned to “identify risks to the system” through simulations expected to be done within the next six months. Based on those studies, PJM could consider ways “to put a value on resources that offset that risk.”

“There's no indication to date that fuel security is an issue in PJM,” Robbie Orvis, policy director at Energy Innovation, wrote in an email. It also “focuses on rewarding attributes instead of services, which is a bad precedent to set,” he wrote. That point has been made by several FERC commissioners in recent decisions. 

PJM’s study will also focus on natural gas pipeline constraints during cold weather snaps like the 2013 polar vortex, or this winter’s milder freezes, Orvis said. That emphasis would appear to focus on reliability problems with natural gas power plants, and leave out studies of frozen coal piles or other weather-related reliability problems at plants served by other fuels.

Clean energy advocates have also been keeping a close eye on PJM’s policy work on reliability, which was sparked by a FERC order that emerged from the same January vote that rejected Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s request to classify coal and nuclear power plants as vital to grid reliability. 

In the January ruling, FERC ordered PJM and the rest of the country’s independent system operators and regional transmission organizations to respond to a list of 14 questions about how to define and measure grid resilience, with the goal of determining what, if any, additional steps might be needed outside of existing market rules to prevent or recover from disasters. 

While most of the grid operators responded to FERC’s demand with relatively modest suggestions, PJM’s response linked resilience to a separate set of market price formation reforms it has asked FERC to consider. Those proposals have drawn fire from clean energy and consumer groups, since they’re projected to increase total energy and capacity market costs from 2 to 5 percent, largely in areas that would benefit baseload power plants.