This year, a key independent government panel unanimously rejected a plan from the Trump administration to save struggling coal and nuclear plants. Trump's team at the Energy Department had to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to keep even more of those power stations from closing, after Trump campaigned on bringing the coal business back to parts of the country that are rapidly shedding jobs in the industry.
Now a member of that team may soon get a spot on that very panel. On Wednesday, President Trump nominated the Energy Department's Bernard McNamee to be one of five commissioners on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC Commissioner Robert Powelson announced his retirement over the summer.
With coal-fired and nuclear power steadily being edged out of the electricity market by stiffer anti-pollution regulations and tighter competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy, the Energy Department urged FERC last year to approve a plan favoring power plants able to store fuel on site. Only coal and nuclear plants are able to do that at scale.
But the rest of the energy industry, including a rare alliance of oil, renewable energy and environmental interests, regarded the plan as a veiled rescue of politically favored energy producers.
“From just a quick look at his resume, the speeches he’s made, and his past associations, it’s clear McNamee is nothing more than a political plant for Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Donald Trump" on what is supposed to be an independent panel, the Sierra Club's Mary Anne Hitt said in a statement Wednesday.
Members of the Trump administration, including McNamee and his boss, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, suggested that the electricity marketplace is failing to properly reward those baseload plants for being able to produce power reliably. McNamee is currently the executive director of the department's Office of Policy and had previously been its deputy general counsel for energy policy.
“A lot of the organized markets,” McNamee told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July, “have distortions in them that aren’t representative of an actual free-serving market.”
“So the thought is, in that sense, that you need to remove some of those distortions,” he added.
And in an op-ed in The Hill in April, McNamee said: “Some suggest that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable resources to meet our needs, but they never explain how.”
Noting that renewable generators produce power “only when the sun is shining or wind is blowing,” he added: “This does not mean we should not use renewable energy. Of course we should. But these facts do mean that we need to be honest about whether renewables can displace other energy resources in providing for our energy needs.”
FERC did not see things the Trump administration's way. While the panel said it shared the administration's goals of strengthening grid resilience, it felt there were better ways of going about it. The resounding rejection of the plan in January came despite three of FERC's five members being Republican, and four of them having been nominated by Trump.
Given that unanimous decision, McNamee's presence on the panel would not have changed the outcome. But the same cannot be said in another potential vote on some modified coal and nuclear bailout, should it come before the commission.
“It's not clear to me that the situation changes,” said Greg Wetstone, head of the American Council on Renewable Energy, which opposed the Trump administration plan.
But he added he is waiting for “what comes next from the White House.”
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