by conor bernstein

Proposing to upend the nation’s electricity mix and do it at warp speed is a policy that at the very least deserves transparent discussion and requires extensive planning. Tucked into the reconciliation package is such a proposal. The Clean Electricity Performance Program will throw vast sums at utilities to transform their generating fleets and do so in less than a decade. It is — as The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently described — “a national renewable-energy mandate on the sly.”

The ramifications of this plan for consumers and the grid, particularly grid reliability, could be extraordinary. But despite the sweeping changes such a plan could bring to the nation’s power sector and every dimension of the economy, there will be almost no debate. The partisan nature of the reconciliation process doesn’t allow for it.

Open debate and constructive exchanges about how such a plan could or should proceed would include a frank discussion about cautionary tales from Texas to California and their missteps in the energy transition. These examples of poor planning, overconfidence in modelling, and failure to value fuel diversity and security should scream out for caution. Anyone unconvinced of the potential danger this proposed rapid transformation may bring need only look across the Atlantic.

Europe’s attempted pivot away from traditional sources of power to heavily subsidized renewable energy, and overreliance on natural gas as a bridge fuel, is spiraling toward economic catastrophe.

‘We Face an Extreme Situation’

In Germany, where the Energiewende has already come with a litany of problems, the mandated retirement of the nation’s coal fleet is adding acute grid reliability challenges on top of stunning costs. Germany’s ability to meet peak power is rapidly eroding and poised to hit a crisis point in the next two years.

By 2023, the margin of supply over peak demand is expected to plunge to 3%, or 2 gigawatts, from 26% before the pandemic. A razor-thin supply of power is likely to send power prices in Germany soaring. Wholesale rates have already jumped 60% this year, a premium that is trickling down to German consumers who already shoulder the highest electricity rates in Europe.

Germany’s sky-high energy prices are becoming a continent-wide phenomenon. Bloomberg found that, “Spain was already forced to cut energy taxes as power prices rose to a record, and the U.K. is expected to allow utilities to increase bills a second time this year…”

Consumers are getting hammered and since European governments have closed much-needed coal capacity, there’s no longer dispatchable fuel diversity to offer shelter. As an energy trader told the Financial Times, “In the past, we used to see more fuel switching — if gas prices are too high then utilities will switch to coal. But that is not really an option these days.”

Harald Herzig, head of trading at German utility Mainova, recently warned, “We face an extreme situation this winter with the threat of really not having enough gas for the Western European markets.”

The warning signs for American policymakers are everywhere and yet don’t seem be heeded anywhere. Now, more than ever, energy policy is in desperate need of careful planning, of measured design and thoughtful debate.

Conor Bernstein is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.