By Chris White
November 1, 2017 - Five of the eight former energy regulators that filed comments opposing the Department of Energy’s (DOE) new rule supporting coal power work for green energy groups that could benefit if the measure fails.
Four former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chairmen — Betsy Moler, James Hoecker, Pat Wood III, and Joe Kelliher — and one former commissioner, Nora Mead Brownell, who are publicly calling out the DOE’s new energy grid rule have significant ties to groups supporting solar and wind power.
The FERC may create an electricity pricing regime that allows power plants to recover the costs of providing baseload power from coal. The proposal is perceived as a lifeline for coal and nuclear power plants, a boon for solar and wind farms, and a harm to natural gas producers.
The bipartisan group filed comments shortly before the deadline, arguing that “the Commission’s adoption of the published proposal would instead disrupt decades of substantial investment made in the modern electric power system, raise costs for customers, and do so in a manner directly counter to the Commission’s long experience.”
The former commissioners believe Perry is trying to rollback more than 50 years worth of FERC reforms that have created a marketplace for a variety of electric power generators, including coal, nuclear, solar and wind power.
“His focus is clearly coal and there are a lot of dirty coal plants that are not competitive in today’s energy markets,” Moler, a former FERC chairwoman and former deputy energy secretary, told reporters earlier this month. “To me he’s effectively proposing to subsidize them and put a tax on consumers in doing so.”
Moler now serves on the governing board for the Climate Action Reserve, which, according to the group’s website, “encourages action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by ensuring the environmental integrity and financial benefit of emissions reduction projects.” Activists and scientists argue that coal production helps increase, not decrease, greenhouse gas emissions.
Hoecker, meanwhile, is a paid lobbyist for a group called WIRES, a coalition of businesses that advocates for investment in electric transmission from wind and solar. He is also an Executive Vice President for NextEra Energy, a company that describes itself as the “world’s largest generator of renewable energy from the wind and sun.”
Another former FERC chairman, Pat Wood III, who served under President George W. Bush, told reporters that he understands the politics and sympathetic to the coal industry’s plight, but the reliability issue Perry cites is not the problem.
Wood currently serves as chairman of the board of Dynegy, which separately submitted comments opposing the rule, and as a director of SunPower, a company that produces solar panels.
“We’re getting shoved aside,” he said about the affect subsidies for coal and nuclear energy are doing to SunPower. “Subsidizing one resource ends up shutting down another one.”
Democratic lawmakers are also criticizing Perry’s move. In fact, they are now using the same line of argument that conservatives use when blasting Democrats for picking winners and losers in the free market.
“You are distorting the market, damaging the environment and delivering preferential treatment to favored industries,” Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey told Perry during the agency chief’s testimony Thursday in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Conservatives and energy analysts made similar points about Perry’s proposal; they argue that the former Texas governor and free market supporter should know better than to support policies that tilt markets in favor of one industry.
“There is no free market, but you don’t fight intervention with intervention,” said Tom Pyle, the president of free market group Institute for Energy Research. “He’s recognized the symptoms but he’s not proposing the right cure.”
Perry’s proposal came shortly after the DOE completed a report in August showing that coal plants are shuttering because they cannot compete with cheap natural gas and, to a lesser extent, subsidized green energy technology. The agency billed the study as monumental in scope, but the findings dovetail with what most analysts have been saying for several years.
Most of the coal and oil retirements from 2011 to 2015 happened because plant owners chose to shut down rather than invest in expensive instruments required to comply with EPA’s final Clean Power Plan rule, which was finalized during the Obama administration.