WASHINGTON, June 28 (Reuters) - U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said on Thursday that bailing out struggling coal and nuclear power plants is as important to national security as keeping the military strong, and that the cost to Americans should not be an issue.
"You cannot put a dollar figure on the cost to keep America free," he told reporters at a press conference in Washington, when asked how much the administration's effort to extend the lives of the facilities would cost. When asked about the cost of a potential bailout, he said he did not yet know.
"We look at the electricity grid as every bit as important to (national security) as making sure we have the right number of ships, aircraft and personnel," he said. "What is your freedom worth?"
President Donald Trump ordered the DOE to take emergency measures to slow the retirements of coal and nuclear power plants, arguing those kinds of facilities can store months of fuel on site and therefore withstand supply disruptions that could be caused by storms, hacks, or physical attacks.
Aging coal and nuclear facilities have been shuttering at a rapid pace in recent years, pushed out by cheaper natural gas as well as renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
The Trump administration considers renewable energy vulnerable, because gas-fired plants rely on pipelines that can be disrupted, and solar and wind facilities only produce energy under certain weather conditions.
Perry said nearly all U.S. military bases rely on power from the civilian grid.
The emerging grid policy fits neatly with the administration's broader agenda to boost U.S. fossil fuels production and to save the coal industry.
The DOE is currently studying ways to bail out coal and nuclear facilities, including potentially by mandating grid operators to purchase power from them.
Cyber experts have questioned the reasoning behind a potential bailout. They said it will not toughen the U.S. power grid against cyber attacks because hackers have a wide array of options for hitting electric infrastructure and nuclear facilities that are high-profile targets.
Perry said the DOE is examining the costs now.
"We dont have a dollar estimate at this particular point." (Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by David Gregorio)