Coal has been in the news a lot during President Donald Trump’s first term. And in some ways, it’s the quintessential lightning rod issue for criticism of the president. But what environmental activists fail to grasp is that coal continues to undergird much of America’s power grid.
In a country with 325 million people, that’s a significant consideration.
The coal debate will only intensify now, however, with the president’s announcement that the Department of Energy (DOE) is exercising emergency authority over power grid operators. It will ask them to source electricity from “at-risk” coal and nuclear plants.
This announcement follows the establishment of a new Strategic Electric Generation Reserve to safeguard domestic energy supplies and ensure sufficient baseload (i.e., essential) power throughout the nation.
While critics see this as simply “propping up” the sagging coal industry, there are actually very sensible and necessary reasons for such an effort. That’s because, for the first time in many years, the reliability of America’s power grid has come into question.
Take the recent arctic winter that pummeled the Eastern United States. The DOE declared that the eastern U.S. power grid narrowly avoided power outages during peak winter demand. And it was the region’s coal power plants that provided 55 percent of incremental daily power generation during the harshest days of a so-called bomb cyclone winter storm.
In fact, the DOE found that “without the resilience of coal plants … the Eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts.”
The winter cold snap that hit the Eastern U.S. was so harsh that all 99 of the nation’s nuclear plants were spun into operation at the same time. In the Midwest, some natural gas power plants had trouble obtaining supplies, forcing outages and an increased reliance on fuel oil. And New England actually ran short on fuel oil, with insufficient natural gas pipeline capacity further complicating the picture.
Overall, the DOE notes that coal yielded three times the incremental power generation of natural gas and 12 times that of nuclear units. And wind energy dropped 12 percent lower than during a typical winter period — which necessitated “dispatchable” coal-fired power to make up the difference.
If that’s not enough, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is projecting possible electricity shortages this summer for both Texas and California. Texas has lost roughly 4.5 gigawatts of coal generation due to recent power plant retirements.
California is also experiencing troubles with natural gas generation because of ongoing constraints at the critical Aliso Canyon storage facility. And with projections that another 12,000 megawatts of coal-fired power are expected to be retired this year — enough electricity to power 8 million homes — it’s not hard to see why America’s power grid might grow a bit shaky.
More than 100,000 megawatts of coal-fired power have been forced into retirement since 2010, and the effects of a regulatory onslaught still reverberate. What Americans should consider is that coal has proven to be the most reliable, affordable option for electricity generation.
Coal plants are uniquely resilient in storing on-site fuel supplies, helping them to power nonstop through long-term weather events. In a large and growing nation, that’s a crucial consideration.
Natural gas and renewables may be touted as the panacea for America’s future power needs, but they have yet to prove as durable and reliable in securing baseload power.
Trump believes federal action is necessary to halt the premature retirement of baseload power plants. As the president’s team explained in a recent memo: “Too many of these fuel-secure plants have retired prematurely, and many more have recently announced retirement.” Natural gas and renewables may be touted as the panacea for America’s future power needs, but they have yet to prove as durable and reliable in securing baseload power.
Americans assume that the lights will always go on when they flip the switch. That presumed, readily available electricity is what sustains safe, modern living. It enables water treatment, sanitation, hospitals, refrigeration, and home heating. Making sure the grid continues to work at all times shouldn’t simply be a matter of faith. It requires diligent, realistic planning.
Trump is taking action now, thankfully, while there is time to prepare. The president is absolutely right to ensure the nation continues to have adequate baseload power. It’s smart planning for future generations.
Terry Jarrett has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and the Missouri Public Service Commission.
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