Electricity is easy to take for granted. But imagine the disruption to our lives if we could not charge our iPhones that connect us to the rest of the world or flip a light switch with the guarantee that power was at our beck and call.
Power reliability, however, has been top of mind for Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry, who recently called for a report on the reliability of America’s electric grid. Because of changes brought about by federal and state policies, Secretary Perry is concerned about the health of the electricity grid. Scheduled to be published in the coming days, this report is expected to highlight the challenges that face our electricity grid, as well as provide suggestions for policymakers like me who are working to ensure that recent changes to the grid do not jeopardize reliable power in the future.
One major challenge to grid reliability already seems clear. The U.S. coal-fired electric generating power plant fleet has gradually been eroded in recent years by new regulations and other factors. Today, a third of America’s coal fleet has either retired or has announced plans to shut down, due in large part to aggressive federal rules aimed at reducing coal’s use. In our state alone, 22 coal-fired electric generating units have already shut down or announced plans to close. Illinois isn’t alone. Other states are experiencing the same disturbing developments.
Historically, the U.S. electricity grid has relied on a diverse mix of electricity sources – coal, nuclear, natural gas and renewables. This strategy relies heavily on baseload sources, like coal-fired power plants, that are capable of producing power virtually around the clock. As a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, I recognize the value of coal to our state’s energy mix and support its continued use. Today, coal provides almost one-third of our state’s electricity, helping to keep Illinois’ electricity prices more than 10 percent below the national average.
Grid operators like PJM Interconnection, which serves the Chicago area, point out that depletions to our coal fleet make the electric grid less resilient. This means the grid we all count on is less capable of withstanding events like the Polar Vortex of 2014 and natural gas infrastructure outages. On the other hand, coal-fired power plants, with their stockpile of 85 days’ worth of fuel, have dependable supplies of fuel at the ready. This distinguishes coal from other sources of electricity, like natural gas power plants, which rely on pipelines to deliver their fuel on an as-needed basis. Having robust coal supplies onsite has proven critical to protecting the reliability of the grid in recent years. In fact, coal has been one of the few energy sources capable of delivering uninterrupted power when states like Illinois have been impacted by extreme winter weather events.
In the same way that diversifying an investment portfolio reduces risk, relying on a diverse mix of electricity sources that include coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables makes the grid more stable and dependable. As policymakers make decisions about electricity sources, it is important they keep in mind the importance of the coal fleet to Illinois and the U.S.
State Rep. John M. Cabello is a Republican from Machesney Park.
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