There is no time to lose in the fight against climate change. We cannot afford to take a single step backward. Yet while we should be running headlong into smart, collaborative and long-term solutions that help mitigate the immediate climate crisis, our federal regulators have instead jeopardized the good progress made toward transitioning our energy systems to zero-carbon sources.
Appointees of President Donald Trump at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission adopted a rule that requires energy sources receiving state subsidies — for example, renewables and nuclear power — to bid at a higher price in the wholesale electricity market. Ostensibly the rule was meant to preserve competition. But instead, it will become more difficult and expensive for some states to pursue policies that support zero-carbon energy sources such as nuclear, wind, solar and other renewables. Ignoring decisions by legislature to manage their own energy portfolio, the decision forces clean, carbon-free energy off the grid. That clean energy will mostly be replaced by highly polluting sources such as coal and natural gas that are cheaper and can bid at a lower cost.
The result of this new rule will be an inherent favoring of fossil fuels over cleaner forms of electricity generation. And as we know, increasing production from these sources will lead to an immediate increase in carbon emissions, harmful pollutants and particulate matter, which directly impacts environmental and public health — putting lives at risk.
The rule also undermines one of the largest sources of carbon-free energy — nuclear power. Illinois where I live ranks first in the nation in net electricity generation from nuclear power, with facilities providing more than half of the state’s total electricity. In 2018, nuclear energy production in Illinois avoided adding tens of millions of tons of carbon pollution into the air. If Illinois’ six nuclear facilities become at risk for closure, the result would most likely be a dramatic increase in the burning of fossil fuels.
The state also enjoys growing production from numerous renewable sources such as wind and solar. However, that growth will quickly be stifled and ultimately undone by the new order because of a dramatic decrease in revenue from these sources.
Not only is the environment affected, so too are Illinoisans’ pocketbooks. In his dissent to the decision, Commissioner Richard Glick estimated the total cost to consumers of this policy change could be as much as $2.4 billion per year. According to a recent study, the new rule could cost Illinoisans more than $800 million per year, increasing electricity costs by 60% compared to today’s prices.
Interference from the commission is picking winners and losers in electricity production and will cost consumers money and endanger public health. Now is the time for action. Allowing the commission to undermine clean energy sources would set the state back years in its fight against climate change. This is a mistake that many states cannot afford.
Carol Browner, a member of the Nuclear Matters Advocacy Council, was director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy in the Obama administration.