Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Draft of Pennsylvania Nuke Subsidy Bill Leaked

By Christen Smith

Pennsylvania lawmakers may create a new tier within the state’s alternative energy program for nuclear power, according to a draft proposal leaked Monday.

The plan would carve out subsidies intended to save two of the state’s five nuclear plants from decommissioning as the deadline for government intervention looms. (See Exelon: Need Pa. Action by May to Save TMI.)

The bill would revise the 2004 Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (AEPS), which mandates electricity distributors boost usage of renewable or alternative energy sources to 18% by 2021. It could hit the legislature March 7, according to prime sponsor Rep. Thomas Mehaffie (R).

Pennsylvania lawmakers are prepared to introduce a bill to save the state’s nuclear facilities from closure. | 123rf

Supporting lawmakers say the legislation will thwart a projected $4.6 billion annual cost to taxpayers should the state’s five nuclear facilities deactivate — including $788 million in increased electricity rates, a $2 billion GDP loss, $1.6 billion in carbon emissions-related increases and $260 million lost to managing harmful criteria air pollutants.

“I wouldn’t introduce the bill if I didn’t think it would pass,” Mehaffie said Tuesday, describing it as one the most important proposals to be vetted in the last 25 years. “I’m really confident we can get something completed” before May.

State Sen. Ryan Aument (R) will introduce a similar bill in the Senate next week, according to his chief of staff, Ryan Boop.

“The leaked draft that is being circulated is not a draft that Sen. Aument’s office drafted,” he said. “I can verify that we are working on language with a number of other legislators that will create a new Tier 3 within the AEPS, and we hope to have that language introduced in the next week or so.”

Nuclear Carve-out

Nuclear generation supplied about 42% of Pennsylvania’s net generation in 2017, compared with 4.5% for renewables, according to the Energy Information Administration. In the draft bill, lawmakers would create a third tier of resources in the portfolio from which companies must purchase at least 50% of their electricity by 2021: nuclear, solar, geothermal and low-impact hydropower, with a few exceptions. The first two tiers include many of the same resources — plus fuel cells, municipal solid waste, biomass energy and biologically derived methane gas — with targets of 8% and 10%, respectively.

Analysts with ClearView Energy Partners suggest the qualifying language found in the third tier — such as rules excluding renewable resources that receive other tax credits and exemptions — is designed to solely benefit nuclear energy.

That’s a big problem for Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts, a coalition of natural gas industry advocates opposed to saving Three Mile Island Unit 1 near Harrisburg before Exelon shuts it down in September.

“It’s still unclear to us what exactly the problem is that legislators are trying to solve,” said Steve Kratz, spokesperson for the group, in an email Tuesday. “Three Mile Island is the only facility in Pennsylvania that isn’t profitable, and regulators at all levels, including FERC and PJM Interconnection, have been very clear that Three Mile Island can close as planned with no impact to grid reliability or ratepayers.”

In a 2017 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Exelon said TMI had lost money for the last five years as a result of “prolonged periods of low wholesale power prices,” its failure to clear the last three PJM capacity auctions and “the absence of federal or state policies that place a value on nuclear energy for its ability to produce electricity without air pollution while contributing to grid reliability.” The company, manager of the largest nuclear fleet in the country, announced similar closures in New York and Illinois before lawmakers approved zero-emission credits in both states. (See Seeking Subsidy, Exelon Threatens to Close Three Mile Island.)

“While we can’t comment until we see legislation introduced, the principles outlined in the recent co-sponsorship memo represent an important next step toward valuing the carbon-free energy that nuclear energy provides Pennsylvania,” said Dave Marcheskie, senior site communications manager at TMI. “The loss of these plants would cost the commonwealth $4.6 billion annually in the form of increased pollution, higher electricity prices to consumers, lost jobs and reduced economic activity.”

Other proponents say nuclear energy deserves inclusion in the AEPS because it provides 93% of the state’s zero-carbon electricity. Rescuing the state’s aging generators from decommissioning could likewise preserve up to 16,000 full-time jobs and $69 million in state tax revenues, they contend.

Martin Williams, business manager for Boilermakers Local 13 in Philadelphia and co-chair of Nuclear Powers PA, described the draft as “pleasing” and said the group “eagerly” awaits the final bill language.

“We have known for some time that changes to the AEPS law could be one of the common-sense mechanisms for treating carbon-free nuclear energy like the other 16 forms of environmentally friendly forms of energy currently included in the AEPS,” he said. “Pennsylvanians want clean, safe and reliable energy and [want] to keep energy prices in check. This type of approach would allow that to happen.”

Fixed Resource Requirement

Last June, a FERC order concluded that increasing state subsidies for renewable and nuclear power were suppressing capacity prices. The commission’s 3-2 ruling required PJM to expand the minimum offer price rule (MOPR) to cover all new and existing capacity receiving out-of-market payments, including renewable energy credits and ZECs for nuclear plants. The MOPR currently covers only new gas-fired units. (See Little Common Ground in PJM Capacity Revamp Filings.)

FERC suggested modifications to PJM’s fixed resource requirement (FRR) option to allow the removal of state-subsidized resources and corresponding amounts of load from the capacity market. The first round of filings in the commission’s “paper hearing” on the issue were filed in October (EL18-178).

ClearView suggested the leaked draft would allow AEPS payments to be rolled into an FRR, though it’s unclear how far the bill will get before May. Pushback from free-market conservatives and the natural gas industry could derail Mehaffie’s and Aument’s tight timelines.

“It’s a work in progress,” Mehaffie said. “We’re working extremely hard with our colleagues and others in explaining what this bill does and how important it is to Pennsylvania.”

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