by Shelley Welton
Deputy Director & Earth Institute Climate Law Fellow
Earlier this month, citing reliability concerns, PJM, the mid-Atlantic’s regional transmission operator, asked FirstEnergy Corp. of Ohio to keep three coal-fired power plants in operation for the next three years that the company had previously scheduled to be shut down by September. This decision represents a perfect example of the ongoing debate (that we previously blogged about here and here) over potential (but perhaps overstated) tensions between grid reliability and clean air.
This winter, FirstEnergy Corp. announced plans to shut down nine of its older coal-fired plants rather than upgrade them to comply with new EPA regulations, including new standards for mercury and air toxics. PJM, however, asked the company to continue running three of these plants on a “reliability must run basis”—meaning that they will be available to meet peak demand needs—until the mercury rule takes effect in 2015. FirstEnergy Corp. will petition FERC to have the costs of operating these plants covered by consumers.
Reliability is, of course, a paramount concern for grid operators and consumers. But running old, dirty units past their economical lifespan at added consumer expense is an unfortunate method of ensuring grid reliability–one which highlights the need to prioritize alternative methods of meeting reliability needs in the near-term future. In particular, energy efficiency and demand response both have the potential to reduce peak demand in areas that otherwise might face grid reliability concerns. These solutions not only avoid the mercury, air toxics, greenhouse gases, and additional pollutants that these three coal plants will continue to emit in the Cleveland area for the next three years, but they are also generally cheaper. The “reliability must run” designation may be necessary for now, but it is a relic of an outdated, supply focused system that we can eliminate with more attention to these cleaner ways of ensuring grid reliability in the future.
 Both Reuters and BNA’s Daily Environment Report ran stories on May 3, 2012, covering PJM’s decision. Details of PJM’s plans for the generators can be found at https://www.pjm.com/planning/generation-retirements/~/media/planning/gen-retire/20120425-fe-jan-2012-generator-deactivation-request-study-results-required-upgrades.ashx.