What does the general public think about Perry’s grid plan?

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, October 30, 2017

Department of Energy Building. Photo credit: Department of Energy/

All major energy stakeholders have had their say on the Department of Energy’s directive to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to boost coal and nuclear plants.

Utility companies, grid operators, state regulators, cities and towns, industry trade associations, and think tanks have all weighed in, both in official comments submitted to the FERC rulemaking docket and in other public statements (E&E News PM, Oct. 23).

But what does the average American think? And does public opinion even matter in a process destined to be a high-level political scrap, pulling in all the big-time energy players, and now in the hands of a relatively obscure federal agency?

The National Mining Association has one answer.

In a poll of 2,201 Americans, commissioned by the NMA and carried out by Morning Consult this week, 51 percent of respondents said they agree with the rough premise of DOE’s proposal.

Eighteen percent said they were opposed, and 31 percent said they did not know or had no opinion.

“Completely missing from the debate over grid reliability has been the most important perspective of all: that of the American family,” said Hal Quinn, NMA president and CEO, in a statement. “Americans expect the lights to come on when they flip a switch, not bear the risk of future blackouts or electricity rationing. Today’s poll shows that Americans believe the government should be doing more to ensure a reliable, resilient and affordable power grid.”

But the wording of the question, to some, raises serious doubts about the usefulness of the data.

“What this poll shows is that based on the previous knowledge that a respondent has and the two sentences they were given, this is what they think,” said Nathan Gonzales, a nonpartisan political analyst. “But there’s probably a lot more information and nuance and complexity that comes with this.”

Joel Eisen, an energy law expert and professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said the question presents a “very skewed and very truncated version” of the proposal.

“So it’s not at all surprising that they were able to get positive responses,” said Eisen.

The question does not touch on the specifics of Perry’s directive to FERC, like the fact that it seemingly arbitrarily defines “fuel-secure” plants as those that can maintain a 90-day fuel supply on-site, or that it does not clearly define — let alone provide proof for — a lack of grid resilience.

“The details are so abstruse for most Americans that they would probably escape notice,” said Eisen.

That’s not necessarily true of every complex energy policy proposal.

“One thing I do think is worth thinking about here — compared to the Clean Power Plan, this has gotten a lot less attention from the general public. And yet if this went through, it would be far more significant for the industry as a whole and for climate than even the CPP would have been,” Eisen said.

There’s another important factor that could have an effect on public opinion: The money to compensate coal and nuclear plants would have to come from somewhere, and it is difficult to imagine a situation where utility ratepayers would not feel the effects on their wallets.

“The average American’s opinion on the proposal will change considerably once a price tag is affixed to it,” said Tyson Slocum, energy program manager at the government watchdog Public Citizen. “Once you start informing people that it will cost billions of dollars a year to support coal and nuclear — resulting in utility bill hikes for everyone — then its popularity will plummet.”

Various estimates have said the plan could raise costs for consumers anywhere between $1 billion and $10 billion annually — although all come with the caveat that Perry’s proposal was broad and FERC could still take it in any number of directions.

Having a say in public comments

Another way — though potentially skewed in its own fashion — to look at public opinion is reading through some of the comments on the FERC docket that are ostensibly from anyone not connected to major energy players.

A majority of the individuals commenting on the proposal were opposed to it.

“For a future that will provide safe and sustainable energy, I ask you to reject this greatly flawed grid resiliency pricing rule proposal,” wrote one, who identified himself as John Breitbart. “Instead, support and formulate rules to mitigate the impacts of nuclear and coal power plant closures, and to move to a just transition for workers and local communities, and support contemporary grid architecture that provides solutions that actually work to give us grid reliability and resiliency while preserving the planet.”

The caveat here: Many of the seemingly individual comments include text from form letters initiated by groups like the Sierra Club or the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and not all identify an allegiance.

There are also comments from individuals that betray a misunderstanding about the proposal.

“I want to go on record as saying that the oil and coal and gas industries do not need any bailout,” wrote one filer. “The fact that, in the past, these industries have gotten so many bailouts and subsidies is part of the problem.”

Oil and gas interests would not benefit from the proposal and have in fact joined with renewable advocacy groups in opposing it.

Ultimately, said Eisen, “I don’t think that we know much at all about what average Americans think about something like this.”