Americans often take their daily electricity for granted. And it’s only when storms knock down power lines that we realize how much we rely on it.
Unfortunately, there are real, growing concerns about the long-term sturdiness of America’s electricity grid. That’s because a decade of heavy-handed federal regulations, along with a wave of competition from natural gas, have combined to dismantle a sizable number of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.
The numbers are actually somewhat disturbing. More than 60 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity has disappeared since 2010. That's enough electricity to power 40 million homes. And overall, this loss is slated to rise to as much as 80 gigawatts by 2020.
Coal remains underappreciated, even though it still provides more than 30 percent of total U.S. power generation. In fact, coal and nuclear plants combine to supply a steady 50 percent of overall U.S. electricity demand. Essentially, they buttress the "baseload" power generation of the United States — the power needed to continuously meet the nation's daily operational needs.
The problem now is that, with many of America's coal-fired power plants being dismantled and nuclear plants being retired, the country has lost an unprecedented amount of baseload capacity in a relatively short span of time. This poses a significant, long-term problem for a nation that has rapidly surpassed 325 million in population.
Thankfully, the Trump administration is taking action. Earlier this year Energy Secretary Rick Perry undertook a study of the overall viability of the nation's power grid. And his conclusion was that the United States must maintain an "all of the above" energy strategy in order to meet its growing needs.
This is smart policy, since natural gas prices have historically been volatile. And gas-fired power plants also remain tied to lengthy pipeline delivery chains. Coal and nuclear, by contrast, maintain plentiful on-site fuel supplies — leaving them less vulnerable to weather disruptions.
Committed environmentalists are vehemently opposed to coal and nuclear, of course. But their wholehearted embrace of wind turbines and solar panels overlooks the troubling intermittency of both forms of power generation. Not only are wind and solar reliant on windy and sunny days, but they are particularly vulnerable to weather extremes.
Secretary Perry has done his due diligence, and found that coal and nuclear provide a very sturdy foundation for continued baseload generation. And in response, he's now calling for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to assess a "reliability" value on power plants. Doing so would reward coal and nuclear for their long-term sturdiness — and thus help to ensure ample, ongoing supplies of robust power to secure the nation's grid.
Perry's proposal has met with criticism from groups favoring renewable energy. And significantly, these wind and solar groups continue to favor the lavish subsidies and mandates that guarantee their market share.
This doesn't suit the wider interests of the American people, though. So Secretary Perry should be commended for taking a realistic approach to a potentially troubling situation.
It's worth considering, too, that today's coal plants are 90 percent cleaner than 30 years ago, thanks to advances in high-tech systems that trap emissions of sulfur, mercury, and particulate matter. And these coal plants can become even more efficient if utilities are given the chance to invest in newer technologies that achieve greater thermal efficiencies and burn less fuel per kilowatt-hour.
Secretary Perry should be congratulated for tackling the unglamorous, technical task of attempting to secure the nation's future power generation. Since Americans assume that the lights will always switch on at their fingertips, they should appreciate the complex logistics needed to ensure that this continues.
Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.
Last Modified: October 13, 2017, 8:11 am