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PJM finds FirstEnergy nuclear plants can retire without threatening reliability

PJM Interconnection said Monday that three nuclear power plants planning to retire can do so without threatening reliability, which analysts said could put upward pressure on capacity market prices. The grid operator also kicked off a longer-term fuel security proceeding.

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"The results of the deactivation study fit with our analysis which forecasts the nuclear plant retirements would push the PJM capacity auction price upward to $85 to $95/MW-day in absence of participation by these units," Manan Ahuja, senior director of North American power markets at S&P Global Platts Analytics, said in an email Monday. Their previous forecast was $80-$90/MW-day.

FirstEnergy notified the grid operator on March 28 of its plans to retire three nuclear plants in the next two to three years due to poor market conditions. The plans include retiring the 896-MW Davis-Besse and 1,247-MW Perry plants in Ohio in 2020 and 2021, respectively. FirstEnergy also plans to shut the 1,811-MW Beaver Valley plant in western Pennsylvania in 2021. Following the retirement notice, PJM conducted a generation deactivation study to ensure the power grid could handle the retirements without threatening reliability. The study found that with some transmission upgrades already being planned, the units can retire as scheduled.

PJM's base residual capacity market auction runs from May 10 to May 16 and generators that clear are obligated to make supply available to operate in the 2021/2022 delivery period. Subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions asked the US Department of Energy to issue an emergency order under little-used Section 202c of the Federal Power Act on March 29 that would require PJM to compensate at-risk coal-fired and nuclear power plants in the region "for the full benefits they provide to energy markets and the public at large."



Two days later the Akron, Ohio -based merchant generating arm of FirstEnergy filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition.

EMERGENCY ORDER NOT NEEDED BASED ON PJM STUDY

Critics of FES' Section 202c request said PJM's deactivation study shows that no emergency exists in PJM.

"This is yet another reason for the Department of Energy to deny FirstEnergy's request for a bailout," John Moore, director of the Sustainable [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] FERC Project at environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email Monday.

David Gaier, a spokesman with independent power producer NRG agreed, saying in an email Monday: "Clearly, the attempt by FirstEnergy to keep open its uneconomic nuclear plants on the backs of ratepayers is a subsidy in search of a crisis -- one that doesn't exist."

However, FES contends the study did not account for the plants' zero carbon-emission attributes or the cost of the transmission upgrades that will be needed once the nuclear units shut down.

"PJM's reliability finding was not a surprise, but it was a disappointment," Don Moul, president of FES Generation Companies and chief nuclear officer, said in an emailed statement Monday. "The results of the PJM reliability study highlight that their review ignores the value that these units offer the grid in terms of fuel diversity and zero-carbon emissions generation."

PJM CONDUCTING FUEL SECURITY ANALYSIS

The issue of power grid reliability has been in the spotlight amid a spate of nuclear and coal plant retirement announcements in recent years. Flat to lower power demand growth and wholesale power prices pulled down by low natural gas prices have challenged the economics of some power generators.

While PJM has recently said there is currently no power supply emergency, conditions could change over the longer term. As a result, the grid operator said Monday it is initiating a process to analyze fuel security vulnerabilities and establish criteria to assess areas within its system that could face future fuel security issues.

The proceeding could result in finding new ways to value and price fuel security that could then be incorporated into PJM's existing market mechanisms to promote competition among different resource types to meet any fuel security needs in a particular location, with reforms to be in place for next year's capacity auction, if that is deemed necessary.

If vulnerabilities are identified, PJM would then model them as constraints in PJM's capacity market, similar to existing transmission constraints, "allowing for proper valuation of needed attributes in the market," according to a Monday statement.

Any costs needed to upgrade fuel supply security could lead to higher capacity market prices.

If PJM finds a part of the system that has a fuel security restriction or limitation, "certainly the adder if you will, the increased cost to fix that would be adding more onsite fuel tanks or other types of fuel secure resources, so there could be a price separation, but really this is about looking at the limitations and resilience of the grid," PJM president and CEO Andrew Ott, said during a Monday phone briefing with reporters.

"Certainly, if we see a fuel security problem, the price would elevate in that area, presumably to mitigate it," Ott said.

--Jared Anderson, jared.anderson@spglobal.com

--Edited by Matt Eversman, newsdesk@spglobal.com