FERC, Fuel, and the Future

by Will Davis

By now we all know that Energy Secretary Perry’s initiative to get the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to consider longevity of fuel supply has fallen and been replaced with an order to study the situation and, hopefully, come up with some kind of solution within 60 days. FERC’s press release from yesterday reads in part thus:

Today’s action directs operators of the regional wholesale power markets to provide information as to whether FERC and the markets need to take additional action on resilience of the bulk power system. The goals of this proceeding are to develop a common understanding among the Commission, industry and others of what resilience of the bulk power system means and requires; to understand how each regional transmission organization and independent system operator assesses resilience in its geographic footprint; and to use this information to evaluate whether additional Commission action regarding resilience is appropriate. FERC expects to review the additional material promptly.

In issuing today’s order, the Commission expressed its appreciation to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry for his having reinforced grid resilience as an important issue that warrants the further attention of FERC.

There seems to be a disconnect here, which a colleague of mine pointed out to me and which I’ll echo – there are two levels of concern. Perry’s original concern lay in the actual amount of fuel on site at a power plant and how that might affect the ability of a given plant to provide power in a case where further fuel than what’s onsite can’t be provided for a while, but the new directive by FERC seems focused on something broader yet much more vague.


It’s no secret that during the past week of frigid cold, electric power prices on the NE ISO skyrocketed almost all the way up to the $400/MW-hr price range because of the shortage of natural gas (which was diverted for heating purposes, as is always the case in very cold snaps pretty much everywhere gas heating is common in homes and businesses.)  As a result of that shortage power providers had to not only ramp up coal use but actually began quite heavily using oil as fuel — and that’s not cheap.  Further, there have been reports that coal plants suffered problems because the coal they had was frozen to the ground or else frozen into the railroad cars trying to deliver it.

This isn’t new; in the historic and terrible winters of the 1970’s exactly this scenario deeply affected the upper Midwest, in Ohio and Michigan.  More than once, utilities were unable to get coal to their plants – partly due, it must be admitted, to the decrepit condition of the Penn Central railroad system.  However, no railroad could have battled trains through the onslaught of the blizzards encountered at times during the mid-late 1970’s.  The primary electric generating fuel, coal, was simply being cut off by forces not under the utility owners’ control be they weather or railroad related.

Detroit Edison (today DTE Energy) had exactly this problem; it could not get coal to Detroit, even though the company owned its own coal cars AND diesel locomotives, all of which were kept in top condition but all of which had to negotiate the battle zone that was the blizzard-encrusted Penn Central.  What did the utility do in response?  Short term, it took emergency measures and scraped through the peril.

Long term it heavily invested in nuclear power.

But don’t take my word for it; let’s consult the official Detroit Edison history of its Fermi 2 nuclear plant. (Note that the work was written wholly in the present tense.)

“The importance of adequate reserve and energy diversification becomes even more evident in early 1977.  Extremely cold weather in January 1977 causes coal handling problems at the Company’s Monroe power plant – as it does at other plants across the United States – curtailing generating capacity over a three week period.  The coal problem, coupled with high demand, requires a five percent voltage reduction and a public appeal for voluntary reduction of electrical usage for the first time in Detroit Edison’s history.  These steps prove adequate and no further action is necessary, but the power shortage demonstrates the need to resume construction of the Greenwood-1 oil-fired unit, Belle River, and Fermi 2, and resume engineering and licensing on Greenwood 2 and 3.” (1)

It should be noted that Fermi 2 and Greenwood 2 and 3 were nuclear units; according to the volume, construction of Fermi 2 restarted in February 1977 as did work on Greenwood 2 and 3 (which were to have been BW-205 units.)  Belle River was originally coal fired.

This is exactly the kind of eventuality that the DOE initiative was originally intended to address – how much fuel does a plant have on site, and how long can it operate on that fuel?  Naturally, nuclear plants DO have to refuel but these cycles are scheduled to occur when there will be the least system impact with units down for refueling.  Otherwise, the nuclear units can run long beyond coal or natural gas units which have their fuel curtailed or cut off.


Now, it appears that FERC is tossing the issue down to the individual system operators, but they’re not looking at the same thing.  The ISO’s will, according to the FERC order, investigate what they perceive their system state to be regarding broad, systemic reliability.  Instead of saying “we need to do something to preserve generating assets which themselves are least affected by external events that curtail fuel,” what we’ll now be saying is “do we really need to do anything about grid reliability?”  These aren’t the same things.

For starters, one of these — the macro scale grid reliability issue — is very heavily political, considering the massive push for (heavily subsidized) renewable energy ongoing for the last decade plus.  Attempting to bolster generators whose fuel sources do bring with them substantial onsite fuel assets at all times such as nuclear and coal runs counter to the political winds mostly blowing today, wherein the message of clean renewable power is the focus.

The other is very technical, which is the actual reliability of the individual plants themselves and what can be done to ensure or increase their ability to perform in harsh conditions.  Sherrell Greene, an expert (and ANS member) on such matters likes to use the term “resilience” to describe a nuclear plant’s ability to run and endure disturbances, and that’s the purview not of politicians but rather of engineers.  One thing isn’t really in question down at the smaller scale, though – the availability of fuel for nuclear plants in longer term weather events.  It’s simply unbeatable, by any other generating source.

And herein lies the problem.  What Secretary Perry was attempting to do was get FERC to give credit to nuclear generating assets (and coal, too, for better or worse) for their inherent fuel availability and then provide incentives or gussets to protect those assets from shutting down based on economics in a world (temporarily) awash in low-priced fracked natural gas.  This move was opposed directly, politically, generally along predictable lines immediately.  What it’s being replaced with is an effort to get the system operators to determine if each of their systems has any expected reliability issues.  It was resilience of individual generating sources; now, it’s resilience of the bulk generating systems.

Whether or not this new process will lead to anything broad that protects nuclear generating assets is open to question; the likelihood that the ISO’s will suddenly fall all over themselves to admit that there are weaknesses they had not previously perceived that would lead to widespread help for nuclear generators seems remote.  However, there are still 60 days over which to debate and get comments in to FERC.


Before I leave you, I want to express one other concern – that being the concern of base load.  Yes, it exists; it’s the demand on a system you never get below.  It’s a minimum amount of demand.  On the NE ISO during the recent snap, the minimum system demand was up as high as the 14,000 MWe level on some days.  You need to provide that at roughly 3 AM to 5 AM or so, when it’s dark.  And cold.

Now, we all know (or should, anyway) that heavy renewables penetration into a grid’s supply carries with it almost all the time the need for rapid response power to mitigate for the generating inconsistency of the renewable sources, and most often today that response power is fueled by natural gas, and one might assume that on some future grid that’s what’ll be running at 3 AM when it’s dark.  What happens if the gas runs out?  Wait – let’s try that again.  What happens WHEN the gas runs out, or becomes much more expensive?

Let’s look back at Kansas Gas & Electric, whose sole fuel was natural gas in the late 1960’s.  That’s right – the only fuel that company burned to generate electric power was natural gas.  But then…

“In 1967, KG&E’s gas supplier, Cities Service, notified the company that it would no longer furnish gas to any new power plants, that gas supplies to existing customers would be reduced each year, and that it could make no guarantees about the price or availability of any set supply at all in the long term.” (2)

What did KG&E do?  It immediately undertook studies that led to the ordering of a nuclear plant that would become known as Wolf Creek, and also to the ordering of an advanced coal fired plant that would be known as LaCygne.  Essentially the company picked having its own fuel on site and having dispatchable sources for future plants.  What will happen in the future (whether near or far) when today’s glut of natural gas is cut down or cut off?  Will there be a nuclear fleet standing to take up the initiative to grow to fill the void of clean, reliable electric energy?  We’re today nearing the time that we can answer that question.  Let’s hope the ISO folks get this one right. Resiliency, in the final analysis, isn’t just about today, but tomorrow and next year and beyond.


(1) “A History of Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant Unit 2.”  Detroit Edison, August, 1983.

(2) “Wolf Creek Station: Kansas Gas and Electric Company in the Nuclear Era.”  Craig Miner, Ohio State University Press 1993.

Will DavisWill Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.  His popular Twitter account is @atomicnews .  

4 thoughts on “FERC, Fuel, and the Future

  1. Will Davis

    In a single comment, you’ve proven that you have no concept whatsoever of what members of ANS are working on, or their vision for the future. I’d suggest you actually get involved and find out what ANS members are doing at their respective “day jobs” – you might be surprised, and for certain you’ll find out that nuclear energy isn’t anywhere near dead.

  2. John Tanner

    The problem is really difficult. As pointed out, during times of high demand, natural gas may be in short supply. In severe weather coal may difficult to move. But nuclear can’t be ramped up for a period of high demand, because nuclear plants already run at full capacity. Any plant run for a significant amount of time significantly below full power would be unprofitable.

    The French do need to ramp their plants up and down for load following. I don’t know how they handle the economics problem.

  3. Jim

    I think we should be looking at how the wind and solar producers fared during the recent cold snap. How were their operations affected. How much did they provide to the system?

  4. li

    Hi Will, you look great near 1960s nuclear reactor control board – that reactor is OBSOLETE ! same with the people in ANS are so conservative minds and they are unable to see nothing in the future but “More of the same” …same hot brick technology that is primitive, same huge plants in nuclear fuel processing, same disaster zones near power plants having waste fuel lined on the ground in various cask forms, Nuclear now is more a liability than an asset in spite of its obvious advantages. In all the doves of boiler engineer, chemists and metallurgists and some theoreticians pretending to understand 1950’s reactors (I mean CASL) very few are aware on the potential of nano-engineered materials to bring new generations of nuclear technology – and to change the word as we know, on Earth and on nearby space. With this trend in US in about 20 years we will have nuclear power as a past technology – good for history classes.

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