By Josh Siegel
May 10, 2018 - Energy Secretary Rick Perry said Wednesday morning he is looking “very closely” at using a 68-year-old Cold War-era law to save coal and nuclear plants.
“We are looking at a number of ways to approach this,” Perry said in testimony before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. “I know the Defense Production Act is one of those ways to address that. We are looking at that very closely as well. Having resilience and reliability to our grid is as important to our national security as anything I can think of.”
The Defense Production Act of 1950 allows the president to nationalize private industry to ensure the U.S. has resources needed during a war or after a disaster. It is meant to ensure supply of critical industrial materials for security.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the coal state of West Virginia, and other lawmakers representing coal and nuclear states have urged Perry to invoke the law in response to planned plant closures, which they say threatens the reliability and resilience of the nation's power grid.
“I am very concerned about the challenges nuclear plants in my state face,” said Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., at the Wednesday morning hearing. “You have a partner here looking for other solutions.”
Energy experts say invoking the Defense Production Act would stretch the law beyond what it's meant for because there is no imminent national security threat from coal and nuclear plants closing.
Perry said Wednesday he is considering using the law as an alternative to granting a petition from Ohio utility FirstEnergy to declare an emergency under Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act to keep its financially struggling coal and nuclear plants from closing.
FirstEnergy wants the Energy Department to force PJM Interconnection, the nation's largest federally overseen grid operator, to sign contracts with coal and nuclear plants across its 13-state region to provide electricity "as needed to maintain the stability of the electric grid."
The measure is not meant to be used for economic reasons, but rather for emergency circumstances that include war, energy shortages, or sudden surges in demand.
Perry seemed to suggest the request may miss the mark since it’s focused on economics.
“The 202(c) request is an economic issue,” Perry said. “That’s approaching this from an economic standpoint.”
But Perry reiterated he is “looking for a solution” to the fading fortunes of legacy power sources.
The Trump administration argues that as retiring coal and nuclear plants, which operate around the clock, are replaced by natural gas and renewables, the grid may struggle to provide power quickly during an extreme weather event or other emergency.
Perry added he’s tiring of constant tension around these issues. “The process kind of wears me out from time to time,” he said.
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