President Donald Trump seems to have given his more passionate critics new ammunition last week with his announcement that the Department of Energy will be stepping in to preserve reliable, affordable baseload power from key coal and nuclear plants.
Opponents are sharpening their knives, but after the fuss and tumble subsides, it will become clear that the president’s move is grounded in sensible and necessary planning. That’s because there are actual question marks hanging over the U.S. power grid right now as to whether it can function reliably over the next 20 years and beyond.
Here’s what the American people are facing. For starters, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (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. And California is experiencing troubles with natural-gas generation because of ongoing constraints at the critical Aliso Canyon storage facility.
If that weren’t enough, the eastern U.S. power grid narrowly avoided power outages during peak demand this past winter. According to the Department of Energy, coal-power plants provided 55% of incremental daily U.S. power generation during the harshest parts of frigid winter weather. 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 even hardy New England ran short on fuel oil, with insufficient natural-gas pipeline further complicating the picture.
These are troubling points to ponder since natural gas and renewables have been touted as the panacea for America’s future power grid. But the DOE report found that coal yielded three times the incremental power generation of natural gas and 12 times that of nuclear units. And, wind energy dropped 12% lower during a chilly “bomb cyclone” than during a typical winter period, resulting in a need for “dispatchable” coal generation to make up the difference.
Going forward, though, another 12,000 megawatts of coal-fired power is expected to retire this year. And this raises the important question of preparedness. Coal has proven to be the most reliable, affordable option for electricity generation, with a unique ability to undergird baseload power requirements that can’t simply be dismissed. Coal plants are uniquely resilient in storing on-site fuel supplies and powering nonstop through long-term weather events.
In a nation of more than 325 million people, that’s a crucial consideration.
A recent memo circulated within the Trump Administration explained that federal action is necessary to halt the premature retirement of baseload power plants: “Too many of these fuel-secure plants have retired prematurely and many more have recently announced retirement.” The obvious worry is that these plants will be replaced by less-secure, less-resilient natural gas and renewable power sources.
There’s an old saying — You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. In this case, the American people rely on readily available, affordable electricity. It’s what sustains safe, modern living—water treatment, hospitals, refrigeration, home heating. Simply trusting that electricity will always be there overlooks real-world challenges to grid readiness.
The administration is absolutely right to shore up baseload power. It’s simply a prudent, necessary step to ensure the viability of the nation’s infrastructure in the years to come.
- On June 4, 2018