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Federal Regulator Sounds Alarm on Declining Electric Grid Reliability

The commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) sounded the alarm on a deteriorating U.S. grid in a House hearing on June 13.

At one point, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) asked the commissioners a yes-or-no question: “Has electric reliability worsened or improved over the past three years?”

The first answer came from acting FERC Chair and Democrat Willie Phillips. Phillips replaced former FERC Chair Richard Glick in January after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) declined to hold a confirmation hearing for Glick’s second term.

Glick, a longtime Democratic aide, was appointed to FERC by former President Donald Trump and named chair of FERC by President Joe Biden at the start of Biden’s term in January 2021.

“We’ve seen a trend where electric reliability has worsened somewhat. We’re beginning to change that trend,” Phillips said in answering Duncan’s yes-or-no question.

FERC Commissioner James Danly, a Republican and a Trump appointee, responded more crisply.

“It has worsened,” he said.

FERC Commissioner Allison Clements, a Democrat appointed by Trump, went into more detail.

“I think it’s a region-specific question. Given any time of year, it’s a seasonal question. It’s a question of extreme weather and what types of stressors hit our electricity system,” she said, before Duncan interjected with a simpler version of her reply.

“Worsened in some areas and improved in others,” he summarized as Clements nodded.

“I think it’s generally worsened because we’re losing the dispatchable resources that are necessary,” said FERC Commissioner Mark Christie, another Republican put in place by Trump.

Christie went into more detail about what dispatchable energy resources are in questioning from Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.).

They are, he said, “resources that are not weather-dependent.”

That translates to sources such as natural gas, coal, and nuclear power, rather than solar or wind.

“That doesn’t mean they’re not weather-impacted,” Christie added, noting that Winter Storm Elliott in 2022 knocked out natural gas units that hadn’t been properly prepared for the harsh weather.

He elaborated on why dispatchable resources are critical to the current grid.

“Power has to be generated and used within seconds. Because of that, you have to have power sources feeding into the grid every single second of every minute. Otherwise, the lights go out. Dispatchable resources are great for that because they run for days, weeks, even months at a time without concern about what the weather forecast’s going to be,” Christie said.

He also described what he sees as the chief problem for America’s electrical infrastructure.

“We’re losing assets that could be providing power right now,” Christie said.

That’s in line with a recent report by the nation’s largest electric grid operator, PJM Interconnection.

It describes how rising power demand and the rapid pace at which existing infrastructure is being retired could combine to create significant issues with power by the end of this decade.

That increase in demand is driven in part by population growth, which in the United States is driven in large part by the high rate of immigration, both legal and illegal.

“We estimate that the net migration of immigrants plus births to immigrants was equal to 77 percent of population growth from 2016 to 2021,” the Center for Immigration Studies’ Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler concluded in a 2023 analysis.

They noted that their estimates were probably low because of “the scale of the ongoing border crisis and resulting surge of new illegal immigration into the country.”

Environmental Justice Is a Priority

Democrats and Republicans in the House saw FERC’s role on energy in a somewhat different light.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) described it as “the agency that can bring our nation’s energy system into the 21st century” and “help lead our clean energy transition.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), by contrast, said the officially independent agency had gone in the wrong direction under Biden by “unnecessarily delaying natural gas permits and supporting a forced transition to less reliable, weather-dependent wind, solar, and battery resources.”

Yet, there were some calls for collaboration across the aisle.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) said improvements to the grid are “not a partisan issue because everybody needs access to power.”

McMorris Rodgers addressed one form of renewable energy for which there is relatively significant bipartisan enthusiasm–namely, the rapid relicensing of hydropower.

Phillips said that FERC is working to “streamline our processes regarding hydro.”

Christie saw FERC’s slowness on relicensing a widely popular energy source as symptomatic of a broader departure from its legal mandate.

“FERC’s been given so many duties that are not really related to our primary function as an economic regulator,” he said.

“When we relicense a dam, it takes forever because there’s so many other boxes we have to check that have really nothing to do with economic regulation. We even have to, like, determine whether relicensing affects recreational opportunities,” Christie added.

“We’re not the Parks and Rec Department. We shouldn’t be,” he continued.

In a dialogue with DeGette, Phillips suggested that FERC’s work on an issue arguably far removed from its statutory purpose—namely, environmental justice—would ultimately improve its efficiency in bolstering America’s grid.

He told her that he is working on an “outward facing document” to help stakeholders understand “how we define ‘environmental justice.’”

“This is something that I believe will be critical to help move forward, and not just have projects approved, but to ultimately have them built,” Phillips said.

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