The bankruptcy filing for FirstEnergy's struggling coal and nuclear power subsidiaries was met with a lot of “told you so” responses from the clean energy community.
They faulted the utility’s decisions to seek state and federal bailouts for its money-losing plants, file lawsuits to restrict cleaner competition, and even demand emergency federal relief on the grounds that the grid will fail without them.
But the potential impact of FirstEnergy’s bankruptcy on the country’s carbon emissions are becoming a worry.
The same market forces that undermined 9,218 megawatts of FirstEnergy coal-fired power plants — cheap natural gas, flat load growth, and rising competition from zero-marginal-cost wind and solar power — have also undermined its three nuclear power plants, worth 4,048 megawatts of zero-carbon capacity.
And while the future of the coal-fired fleet is now in the hands of the bankruptcy courts, FirstEnergy has already declared its intent to close three nuclear reactors in Ohio and Pennsylvania by 2021, absent some form of state or federal aid.
Consultancy GPG has calculated that those plants generated 33 terawatt-hours of energy last year for mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM, just a little more than the 30 terawatt-hours of wind and solar power. PJM is also set to lose the 7 terawatt-hours provided by Exelon’s Three Mile Island plant, which is set for closure by 2019, bringing the projected deficit of nuclear power to about 40 terawatt-hours per year.
That means that wind and solar power in PJM would have to more than double in the next three to four years to make up the difference in carbon-free energy lost to the grid. But it’s far more likely that new natural-gas-fired power plants will make up the lion’s share of the lost generation, as a PJM spokesperson told E&E News, and as economic logic would dictate.
The condemnations of FirstEnergy’s business decisions from clean energy and environmental groups have largely written off its nuclear plants, along with its coal plants, as obsolete technologies unable to compete in the free market. But some have also pointed out that zero-carbon emissions credit schemes, such as those implemented in New York, Illinois and a growing number of other states to help keep their nuclear fleets open, could apply to FirstEnergy’s fleet.
The Natural Resources Defense Council noted, “It’s up to Ohio, Pennsylvania or federal legislators to decide whether and how to value the carbon benefit of FirstEnergy's nuclear plants, taking into account nuclear power's costs and other problems, and more affordable and truly clean solutions.”
The question of how to deal with nuclear power has split the clean energy and climate change community for decades. Many argue that it's impossible to decarbonize the grid without it — see The Breakthrough Institute for arguments on this front.
Others, such as Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute, argue that wind and solar power can scale fast enough to meet future energy needs, if accompanied by major investments in things like energy efficiency, building energy management, and "smart charging" for future fleets of electric vehicles.
The debate is tied up in stark differences of opinion over nuclear power's benefits versus its environmental and safety risks. It’s also been muddied by the efforts of companies like FirstEnergy to push for policies that link nuclear and coal power’s interests in opposition to cleaner alternatives.
The Trump administration’s efforts to fulfill its promises to support the coal industry have also played a role in the FirstEnergy saga. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s failed attempt to convince the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to create out-of-market payments for coal and nuclear power plants, on the grounds that they’re essential for grid resilience, has been linked to lobbying by the utility and its largest coal supplier Murray Energy, whose CEO is a vocal Trump supporter.
FirstEnergy’s latest effort was to request emergency aid from DOE to keep its plants open. While DOE officials have said they wouldn’t use the rarely invoked emergency authority to keep uneconomic plants open, clean energy advocates were on the lookout this week for signs that the Trump administration might change its mind on the matter — a reminder that bankruptcy has not put an end to the FirstEnergy saga, only shifted it to a new phase.
Listen to this week's Energy Gang podcast for a debate over how to handle FirstEnergy's nuclear plants.