Washington — As the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and regulated power and natural gas companies seem to have adapted to the new normal brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Chairman Neil Chatterjee is looking to an upcoming technical conference to elucidate challenges the energy industry may face when the country reopens.
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The commissioner-led forum, set to be held virtually July 8-9, will "consider the ongoing serious impacts that the emergency conditions caused by COVID-19 are having on various segments of the US energy industry," Chatterjee said during the commission's monthly meeting Thursday. Those meetings have been held as audio-only webcasts.
FERC has taken multiple steps to ease regulatory and compliance burdens in the short term to allow companies to focus on operations and keeping the lights on, but the chairman asserted a need to explore the potential longer-term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and issues that may arise as the country begins to recover from the health crisis.
Topics for discussion during the two-day event will include operational and planning challenges; potential impacts of changes in electric demand on operations, planning and infrastructure development; effects of changes in natural gas and oil demand; and issues tied to access to capital and liquidity.
"The conference will provide an opportunity for the type of high-level, energy-focused public discussions that will help chart the path forward," Chatterjee said.
The sharp drop in power demand from business and school closures as a number of states issued stay-home orders has, for instance, heightened economic pressures on coal plants. Coal-fired generation is seen falling by 25% year on year in 2020, with coal providing just 19% of US electricity, dropping for the first time below nuclear power and renewable power, according to the Energy Information Administration.
During a press briefing after the commission meeting, a reporter asked Chatterjee, who grew up in Kentucky and has empathized with the plight of coal communities, about his view on the future of coal generation and implications of plant retirements accelerated by conditions brought on by the pandemic. In response, Chatterjee noted FERC's "data-focused approach" to monitoring impacts of market forces on generation as part of its "fundamental obligation" to maintain and oversee grid reliability.
"There's no question that COVID-19 is impacting demand; it's shifting demand patterns, and there are huge implications from that not just for coal, [but also] for renewables, for nuclear, for gas, for hydro," he said.
The technical conference taking place in July is intended "to bring in experts and have a fulsome conversation — a serious, nonpolitical conversation — looking at the implications of this pandemic on the energy sector," he told reporters. "We may not have all the answers, but I think it's important that we start to ask some of these questions so that all of us can be proactive and not reactive when the country reopens for business and ... we look at what challenges the landscape will present us when we come out of this pandemic."
More details on the technical conference will be released in the coming weeks, Chatterjee said.
As for the short-term efforts Chatterjee mentioned, a number of blanket extensions and waivers FERC granted to provide regulatory relief in light of the pandemic expired May 1.
Chatterjee said during the meeting that he was glad the commission was able to provide that relief to those in the energy space, but he was "also glad to see that the expiration of certain extensions and waivers on May 1 did not create a panic."
That "tells me, thankfully, that regulated entities and the public are adjusting to the emergency in their dealings with the commission," he said.
Even with some notices expiring, Chatterjee stressed that the commission remained vigilant and committed to expeditiously acting on any requests for regulatory relief that may be needed.
He noted FERC's May 8 decision to further waive until September 1 requirements that certain filings be notarized or supported by sworn declarations, and a notice issued Wednesday extending by six months effective and implementation dates for Order 860.
That order (RM16-17) institutes a new reporting regime for electric power sellers, amending the market-based rate information sellers must report to the commission and mandating transmittal of this information to a relational, commission-administered database.
Issued in July 2019, the rule was set to take effect October 1, 2020, with baseline submissions due by February 1, 2021. The notice pushes the effective date and deployment of the database to April 1, 2021, and extends the deadline for baseline submissions to August 2, 2021.
FERC earlier in the month completely shut its headquarters building after four of its contract workers tested positive for COVID-19, following weeks of limited traffic to the building as most staff worked from home and public access was prohibited.
Chatterjee earlier this spring relaxed certain filing deadlines for the power and natural gas sectors and put off some in-person enforcement activities.