New FERC chair hints at support for coal and nuclear

There was never any question about the positions of Neil Chatterjee, who President Trump has appointed to “temporarily” run the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Chatterjee, former energy advisor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), has been an outspoken proponent of fossil fuels and particularly coal, and has published opinions that show an outdated understanding of renewable energy.

The only question is what he is going to do about it. In a FERC podcast yesterday, Chatterjee hinted at the direction that FERC will take, by falsely claiming that “baseload” coal and nuclear plants are an “essential” part of the electric grid, and hinting that FERC will find means to pay these uncompetitive forms of generation to stay online.

“I believe baseload power should be recognized as an essential part of the fuel mix,” stated Chatterjee in an interview conducted by FERC communications staff. “I believe that generation, including our existing coal and nuclear fleet, need to be properly compensated to recognize the value they provide to the system.”

Chatterjee’s statements show an outdated understanding of the electric grid. As explained in a 2017 study by the Brattle Group for National Resources Defense Council, operational flexibility is what is needed in electric grids, and the term baseload “is no longer useful for the purposes of planning and operating today’s electricity system”.

Subsidies to keep aging nuclear plants operating under the new environment of low wholesale power prices have already been passed in both New York and Illinois, with a variety of justifications. However, if FERC approves or imposes subsidies for coal plants as well, this will be a major shift in policy.