New Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee said Thursday that the nation's electricity grid watchdog will evaluate whether to help preserve the nation's coal and nuclear plants during the transition to renewable energy sources.
Chatterjee, testifying before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, took a more cautious stance on the matter than he did upon becoming chairman one month ago, when he said on the agency's podcast that coal and nuclear plants need to be properly compensated to recognize the value they provide to the power system.
"Being from Kentucky, I have seen first hand the importance of coal-fired generation and what it means for the delivery of not just affordable, but reliable electricity," Chatterjee testified Thursday, in his first public appearance since being appointed chairman.
"In terms of strategies or a path forward, the commission is fuel neutral and will look to ensure as the grid undergoes this transformation, we make sure we evaluate the attributes of fuel sources to see what values they provide and if there is a demonstrated need for reliability whether those things can be compensated."
Chatterjee, a Republican, will be the chairman until President Trump's nominee to head the commission, Kevin McIntyre, is confirmed by the Senate, likely sometime this fall.
But his perspective holds sway on a commission that is finally running after it was forced to shut down for six months for the first time in its 40-year history because it didn't have enough members.
Chatterjee's noncommittal approach to propping up coal and nuclear plants, known as baseload energy sources because they can reliably produce power around the clock, mirrors comments McIntyre made during his confirmation hearing this month.
McIntyre testified he would adhere to FERC's basic duties of approving and regulating the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and crude oil, without favoring one energy source over another.
"FERC does not pick fuels among different generating resources, so it's important it be open to the science, and the characteristics of reliability and economics that are important to satisfying the energy needs of our nation," McIntyre said.
During a time of transition for the electric grid, the coal and nuclear industries have pressed FERC and the regional grid operators that it oversees to enact rules that provide market-based incentives based on the value their power plants provide to the grid, namely low cost and stability.
Plentiful cheap natural gas, and the rise of wind and solar power, have reshaped the energy landscape as coal and nuclear plants have closed across the U.S.
But Chatterjee and McIntyre say they will not act without further study on whether changes to the electricity grid have created vulnerability and reliability concerns.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, a coal-producing state, pressed Chatterjee in the hearing to commit to a strategy to compensate coal and nuclear generation.
"We need to respond to establish a path for baseload generation, especially coal," Cramer said. "I worry about the forced shutdown of baseload generation. It doesn't do anything to protect America's future energy position, while increasing the cost of electricity for consumers."
Chatterjee did not make that promise.
"We will closely monitor and watch whether transitions in the grid do lead to vulnerabilities and threats to reliability and resilience and whether we need to take steps to make sure that need is met," he said, while adding the issue of deciding whether to compensate coal and nuclear is a "high" priority for FERC.
Chatterjee, responding to questions from reporters after the hearing, said he would not "speculate" on what FERC could do to help coal and nuclear plants.
"I don't want to get that far ahead," Chatterjee said. "The point that I made was if there was some demonstrated threat to reliability there would be options available to the commission to take action. The key word there is 'if.' We would have to have a record, we've have to have careful analysis and then make that determination. But if it was in fact determined that there were reliability issues that needed to be addressed, certainly we would have some options."
An Energy Department report on the electric grid released last month recommended FERC make changes to fix many of the problems affecting coal and nuclear plants, including that the commission look at new grid rules that value nuclear and coal power plants' attributes, ensuring they receive a better price.
While he would not commit to future actions, Chatterjee did commend FERC members for attacking a backlog of issues in its first month of work after it lacked a quorum of three of five seats for six months.
"People have been saying, and I was one of them, hey, we need to restore the quorum to get FERC working again," Chatterjee told reporters. "What I saw the moment I walked in the door is that FERC has been working the whole time. We've got a great strategy in place working through these orders. We've got 62 out today and should have a number [of more] coming."
Chatterjee also said FERC remains open for new business as it works to return to its five full members when McIntyre and Democratic nominee Rich Glick are confirmed by the Senate.
"We are working through the backlog quickly while also taking in new business," he said. "We can walk and chew gum at the same time."