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Researcher: Draft DOE report downplays onsite fuel's role in grid resilience

Onsite fuel storage at power plants does not play a critical role in grid resilience, according to the head of a research group that helped prepare a draft report on a study requested by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The DOE has argued that the U.S. electric grid is at risk from the early closure of coal-fired and nuclear power plants that can store fuel onsite. Those concerns propelled Energy Secretary Rick Perry to seek a rule from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that would have required regional grid operators to ensure full cost recovery for power plants in wholesale markets that store at least 90 days of fuel onsite.

But Michael Webber, who heads the University of Texas-Austin's Webber Energy Group, said in an Oct. 12 tweet that the organization wrote a draft report on grid resilience with the DOE's Idaho National Laboratory. One of the main findings in that report was that "on-site fuel storage (e.g. coal) isn't a critical factor for resilience, rather it's one of many factors." Despite the significance of the finding in light of the DOE's resilience concerns, Webber said the report "hasn't seen the light of day, yet."

In a follow-up email, Webber said he did not know why the DOE had not released the study.

DOE spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said the Office of Nuclear Energy received the latest draft of the study Sept. 30 and "is currently proceeding through the internal review process." The DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy asked the Idaho National Laboratory to evaluate "nuclear resilience" and determine the amount of baseload capacity needed to maintain grid stability under various scenarios, and the lab subsequently subcontracted the study to the University of Texas, according to Hynes.

Studies undertaken by the DOE "typically take multiple months and in some cases even years" to complete, Hynes said, adding that "it is premature and irresponsible to criticize and jump to politically motivated conclusions about a report that has not yet been finalized or released."

Resilience is broadly defined as the grid's ability to quickly recover from natural or human-caused outages or other challenges. But the industry and federal regulators have not established specific metrics or criteria for defining and ensuring resilience.

After rejecting Perry's request for a rule to underpin vulnerable coal and nuclear plants, FERC launched a wide-ranging resilience review in which it asked grid operators to define the term and share any concerns they had with respect to keeping the grid resilient. But the commission has not proposed any new rules or regulations on the topic in response to the review to date.

Following the failure of it proposal to FERC, the DOE created a draft plan leaked in late May that would require grid operators to buy power or capacity for two years from certain "fuel-secure" power plants until the DOE determined which assets may be crucial for national security and defense purposes. A DOE official recently told lawmakers in Congress that the agency's recommendations are now at the White House, which has not yet announced any final plans on the issue.