Letter: Only Coal Provides Reliable Power

Via The Virginian-Pilot:

TO MANY SKEPTICS, particularly those on the political left, the shutdown of coal plants has demonstrated the industry’s shaky future. With more than 400 units — more than one-third of the entire U.S. coal fleet — already shut down or due to close in the next few years, few places in the country will be untouched by the consequences of the loss of affordable and reliable electricity.

How can consumers avoid the serious stresses in the electric-power sector? What’s the safest way to provide the electricity needed to power households and keep businesses and factories running? What’s the safest way to endure electricity shortages that result in a cascading blackout or a brownout?

The power sector’s preference for a quick fix — its willingness to take hundreds of coal plants off the electric grid despite a risk to electricity reliability — is supposedly the answer. But it’s one that will result in serious problems with negative consequences for electricity users and the nation’s economy.

The problems were recently documented in an analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. It showed that coal was “the most resilient form of power generation” during the severe winter weather that hammered the eastern U.S. in December and January and that removing coal from the energy mix would “worsen threats to the electrical grid’s dependability” during future severe weather events.

The winter storm, known as a “bomb cyclone,” or winter hurricane, plunged the region into a deep freeze, sparking a significant increase in the demand for additional power for heat. Coal provided a majority of the power required to meet the emergency, according to the study. In fact, during the worst of the storm, U.S. electricity market experience showed that without the resilience of coal plants — the ability to add capacity — the eastern U.S. “would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts.”

The report warns against overestimating the nation’s ability to respond to weather events if the current rate of coal plant shutdowns continues.

Focusing on six regional electricity markets administered by independent system operators that served areas affected by the bomb cyclone, it found that for the largest operator in the mid-Atlantic, coal provided the most resilient form of generation due to available reserve capacity and on-site availability, far exceeding all other sources, and providing three times the incremental generation from natural gas.

If nothing else, the shutdown of coal plants has made one thing clear: The notion that electricity reliability was unaffected was a sham.

Unless we stop coal shutdowns and start putting greater emphasis on reliability, electricity users will learn the hard way. But they aren’t the only potential victims. If power shortages force businesses and factories to close, companies would suffer financially, and shareholders would feel the effects.

Utilities, in other words, need to take another look at coal.

Syd S. Peng

Dept. of Mining Engineering

West Virginia University

Morgantown, W.Va.

See the article here.