Perry says cyberthreats to gas justify help for coal, nuclear

Source: Mike Lee, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 8, 2018

AUSTIN, Texas — The potential for cyberattacks on gas pipelines and the electric grid makes it important to keep coal and nuclear plants online, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said.

Perry, speaking at a conservative political conference here, cited recent news about Russian hackers infiltrating U.S. utility control systems as a reason for protecting the conventional baseline power plants against competition. He also said he’s privy to classified information about the threats because of the Energy Department’s involvement in cybersecurity research and his role on the National Security Council (Energywire, July 31).

“Wind and solar are interruptible, and so [are] gas pipelines. The only forms that are not interruptible are coal and nuclear — because they’ve got fuel on-site,” he said.

“If someone wants to just debate it on the economics, that’s fine. I don’t have that luxury because of classified information that I know, that we have to deal with. If New York City turns into a jungle because the lights go out, I know where the buck stops.”

The remarks are the Trump administration’s latest effort to throw a lifeline to coal and nuclear power plants, which can’t compete against cheaper gas-fired generation and renewables. Perry asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year to consider intervening in electric markets to prop up coal and nuclear plants, arguing that it would make the nation’s electric grid more reliable (Energywire, Aug. 25, 2017).

FERC, whose members also have access to classified information about grid threats, rejected the idea, and some utility operators said the price supports aren’t needed. Since then, Perry has proposed using his department’s authority under the Federal Power Act and the Defense Production Act to keep coal and nuclear plants online (Greenwire, June 28).

Perry tried a new approach Saturday. As coal and nuclear plants have retired in the last decade, about 12 million homes have effectively switched to natural-gas-fired power, he said. That means gas pipelines are serving more power generation than in years past.

The Energy Department has its own electric grid at the Idaho National Laboratory, and researchers have used it to simulate cyberattacks and other scenarios, Perry said.

The department is also working on a new generation of small, modular nuclear power plants that will be dramatically cheaper than the existing fleet, he said.

Perry, a former Texas governor, appeared during a panel discussion with Erick Erickson, an Atlanta-area radio host who runs the website The Resurgent. He didn’t address criticism of the proposal from environmentalists and others who say there are better ways to improve the grid’s resilience (Energywire, Aug. 2).

Although he touted his record promoting wind generation in Texas, Perry sided with traditionalists who predict that fossil fuels will provide 70 percent of the world’s energy in 2040.

As he has in the past, Perry cast fossil fuel use in moral terms, saying access to energy can improve people’s lives in Africa and other developing areas (E&E News PM, July 30).

Without fossil fuels, “You’re basically going to tell those people you’re going to live in poverty, you’re going to die early and your kids aren’t going to be educated because you decided you’re going to pick and choose which fuel they’re going to use,” he said.