FirstEnergy says it’s closing three nuclear plants; seeks federal help

  • Reid Frazier
Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport, Pa. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport, Pa. Photo: Reid R. Frazier” credit=” 

Citing “market challenges,” electric utility FirstEnergy says it will close three nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, while at the same time asking the Department of Energy for immediate help to keep its fleet of coal and nuclear plants open.

The company, which could be near bankruptcy according to a report at cleveland.com, gave regional grid operator PJM interconnection notice that it will deactivate Beaver Valley Power Station and two other plants — Davis-Besse in Oak Harber, Ohio, and Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Perry, Ohio — by 2021. The company says 2,300 employees would be impacted by the closures; most would be laid off, a spokesman said.

The plants produce 4,000 megawatts of power, enough electricity to power about 4 million homes.

Natural gas and renewable energy have been making up a larger amount of the country’s electric grid, eating into coal and nuclear power on wholesale markets. With that backdrop, FirstEnergy is also asking the Department of Energy to issue an immediate emergency order to PJM Interconnection, the grid operator for mid-Atlantic states, to provide “just and reasonable” compensation to its fleet of aging coal and nuclear power plants in order to keep them open.

“Nuclear and coal-fired generators in PJM have been closing at a rapid rate — putting PJM’s system resiliency at risk — and many more closures have been announced,” the company said, in a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry. “PJM has demonstrated little urgency to remedy this problem any time soon — so immediate action by the Secretary is needed to alleviate the present emergency.

“The Nation’s security is jeopardized if DOE does not act now to preserve fuel-secure generation and the diversity of supply.”

The order would be similar to one that Perry’s own Department of Energy proposed last year, which would have made ratepayers pay more for energy produced at coal and nuclear plants. In January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected the proposal.

Environmental groups were swift to label FirstEnergy’s proposal a “bailout” for the coal and nuclear industries.

“If Rick Perry and Trump Administration take the bait and actually issue this ill-advised and illegal emergency order, that means they’re happy to let energy bills and pollution skyrocket, just to bail out a handful of rich coal and nuclear executives,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, in a statement.

The oil and gas industry was no less harsh in its criticism.

“FirstEnergy needs to stop misleading the public and government officials about the status of its power plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania,” said Todd Snitchler, Market Development Group Director for the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement. “For FirstEnergy to cry wolf on the issue of grid reliability is irresponsible and is the company’s latest attempt to force consumers to pay for a bailout.

“PJM is responsible for the reliability of the grid and if there is an emergency, PJM already has the tools to respond.”

PJM’s response?

“There is no immediate emergency,” said Susan Buehler, a spokeswoman for the operator. “Nothing we have seen to date indicates that an emergency would result from the generator retirements.”

Buehler said the grid has “adequate amounts of generation available” and that in Ohio alone there are 10,000 megawatts of power “under construction or in the review process to connect to the grid.”

Buehler said PJM would study FirstEnergy’s plan to de-activate its three nuclear plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“It is a possibility they could close, but it’s also a possibility they might be able to run through bankruptcy or sale or whatever else the company decides to do with those nuclear plants.”

PJM conducted a similar review when Three Mile Island announced it was closing in 2016. It found that TMI’s closing, which is projected in 2019, would not affect grid reliability.

She said that coal, natural gas, and nuclear power each comprise around 30 percent of the electric power on PJM’s grid — the nation’s largest. The other 10 percent come from renewable energy.

“We have remarkable diversity (of power sources) right now, especially in Pennsylvania,” Buehler said.

PJM has a proposal of its own to keep plants like Beaver Valley open. It would allow companies like FirstEnergy to charge more for coal and nuclear energy.

In addition to looking for federal assistance, FirstEnergy is asking states for help, too.

Don Moul, president of FirstEnergy Solutions, the company’s power generation subsidiary, called on legislators in Ohio and Pennsylvania to help keep the nuclear plants open.

“We call on elected officials in Ohio and Pennsylvania to consider policy solutions that would recognize the importance of these facilities to the employees and local economies in which they operate, and the unique role they play in providing reliable, zero-emission electric power for consumers in both states,” Moul said in a statement.

Both New York and Illinois recently agreed to give billions in subsidies to the nuclear industry, by essentially paying those plants for not emitting carbon. The states created so-called zero emission credits for their nuclear plants.

There’s been a lobbying push to do something similar in Pennsylvania, but it has yet to gain traction.