House approves bill to resolve grid reliability issue

The U.S. House of Representatives on Aug. 1 approved H.R. 4273, the Resolving Environmental and Grid Reliability Conflicts Act.

This bipartisan legislation, introduced by Reps. Pete Olson, R-Texas, and Mike Doyle, D-Pa., will ensure America’s power companies are able to comply with U.S. Department of Energy emergency orders to maintain grid reliability without facing penalties for violating potentially conflicting environmental laws.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee in an Aug. 1 statement noted that the Federal Power Act authorizes DOE to order electric generating facilities to continue operating in order to avoid potential reliability-related emergencies. However, compliance with such an emergency order could trigger a violation of environmental laws and regulations, like at a coal-fired power plant, potentially exposing the generator to penalties and lawsuits.

“States are being warned by electricity regulators that reserve margins could dip dangerously low. Extreme hot weather across the US and a massive blackout in India demonstrates the dangers of power shortages,” said Olson. “My bill fixes an important glitch in federal law that puts power generators in the unenviable position of choosing which federal law they will violate – a DOE emergency order or environmental laws that expose them to citizen lawsuits. The bipartisan support this bill has received is proof that we can find common ground when working to address a critical glitch in federal law, protect the environment and provide a reliable energy supply to all Americans.”

“The bill addresses the basic principle that the federal government should not be able to direct a generator to operate for emergency purposes and then turn around and fine them for doing so,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. “The potential conflict puts the electric grid at risk and puts generators in the unreasonable position of having to choose between keeping the lights on and meeting their environmental obligations. It’s simply not fair and must be resolved, and I commend Mr. Olson’s leadership for working on this commonsense solution.”

When they introduced this bill in March, the backers noted that the Federal Power Act authorizes DOE to order electric generating facilities to continue operating in order to avoid potential emergencies, including reliability-related emergencies. “However, compliance with such an emergency order could trigger a violation of environmental laws and regulations, potentially exposing the generator to penalties and lawsuits,” said a statement from the bill sponsors. “In 2005, Mirant (now GenOn) faced this dilemma when DOE ordered its Potomac River Generating Station to operate to protect the electric supply to Washington, DC. Mirant complied with the order but was later fined for a three hour NAAQS violation. Such conflicting legal mandates threaten the reliability of the grid and place power plant operators in the difficult position of having to choose compliance with one law over another.” Potomac River is a coal-fired plant due to be retired this year for clean-air reasons.

Within the next few years, DOE may be forced to rely on its emergency authority more often to avoid potential blackouts, resulting in greater occurrences of conflicts between emergency directives and environmental laws, the sponsors pointed out.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.