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Washington Week: DOE to convene electricity advisory committee

Congress is out of session during the President's Day holiday week of Feb. 19-23, but the U.S. Department of Energy will gather power industry members for a meeting of its electricity advisory committee, which will discuss some of the most pressing issues facing the sector.

The DOE in January said the meeting, set for Feb. 20-21, will focus on "rates, tariffs, and market designs" for energy storage, mutual assistance agreements and "emergency response and resilience in recovery efforts."

The gathering will take place days after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a final rule to help energy storage systems, including batteries, compete in wholesale power markets. Proponents of storage technologies view the systems as key to growing reliance on distributed generation and intermittent renewable energy resources. FERC also announced during its Feb. 15 open monthly meeting that it will hold a technical conference in April on distributed energy resources' role in competitive markets.

FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur is slated to speak Feb. 21 at the DOE meeting and could share insights on how the commission may address distributed generation and other pressing topics before the agency. She may also discuss a grid resilience proceeding FERC initiated in January after rejecting a proposal from the DOE aimed mainly at supporting economically struggling nuclear and coal plants.

Emergency response and mutual aid for utilities following disasters have also been at the forefront of the U.S. power sector in the past year. In 2017, hurricanes slammed into Texas and Florida and decimated the electric distribution system in Puerto Rico, where over 20% of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority's customers remain without power, the DOE reported Feb. 14. As more areas of the U.S., particularly coastal areas, become increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events and climate change impacts, utilities are looking for ways to restore power quickly and efficiently after natural disasters.

Man-made threats from cyber and physical attacks also loom large for utilities. The DOE announced in its fiscal year 2019 budget request that the department will split its Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability into two new offices: one focused on grid reliability and the other on cybersecurity and emergency response.

Bruce Walker, who heads the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, is scheduled to speak at the advisory committee meeting Feb. 20 and could discuss the planned organizational change, including priorities for the new offices and how the shift may affect the agency's work on cybersecurity.

Congress weighs infrastructure response

Although Congress is out of session this week, lawmakers are debating their next steps after the White House formally introduced a legislative proposal for an infrastructure development plan.

The 55-page plan called for spurring a $1.5 trillion investment in roads, bridges, ports, power assets and other infrastructure with $200 billion in federal funding. Of those federal funds, $50 billion would be available for a rural infrastructure program that rural electric power projects could tap. The proposal also included permitting reforms aimed at speeding construction of new projects.

Congress would need to approve much of the plan, but an eventual infrastructure bill could differ substantially from the Trump administration's outline. Democrats have pushed for more direct federal funding for infrastructure, while more conservative Republicans are worried about boosting spending significantly after passing tax cuts in 2017 and agreeing to billions of dollars in disaster recovery aid for Puerto Rico and other parts of the U.S. recently affected by wildfires and hurricanes.

Congress is also absorbed with immigration and other big policy issues heading into midterm campaigns and elections in 2018, which could leave little time for putting together a big infrastructure package.

Although time is short for the bill, "We'd like to see something done this year," said Kirk Johnson, senior vice president of government relations for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.


In other news from Capitol Hill, the U.S. Senate on Feb. 15 voted to confirm two officials from the DOE and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Senate by voice vote confirmed Melissa Burnison as Assistant Secretary of Energy for congressional and intergovernmental affairs and Holly Greaves as chief financial officer for the EPA.

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Industry events
Feb. 20-21

The U.S. Department of Energy will hold an Electricity Advisory Committee meeting at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association's headquarters in Arlington, Va.

Feb. 21

The Global America Business Institute will host a presentation at its Washington, D.C., office on FERC's response to the U.S. Department of Energy's proposed grid resilience rule and the commission's recent order on resilience in wholesale markets.

Feb. 23

The Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy will host a lunch in Washington, D.C., featuring Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

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