For some time now, the Obama administration has been trying to force through a climate change policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions from electricity production, particularly coal-fired power plants. Regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency could force states to shut down hundreds of coal plants and shift to natural gas and renewable energy.
Michigan is right between the crosshairs. Coal accounts for nearly half of the state’s electricity supply. EPA’s proposed rule for existing power plants would require Michigan to reduce its carbon emissions 31.5 percent over the 2005 level by 2030.
Already, air regulations for particulate emissions that EPA issued two years ago, along with the shutdown of additional coal plants over the next two years can be expected to increase wholesale power prices as much as 55 percent across the nation. Unfortunately, fuel diversity and electricity reliability are being sacrificed for questionable environmental gains, putting millions of Americans and businesses at risk of higher electricity costs and brownouts.
Grid operators, utilities and state energy officials are worried about the financial costs of an electricity system that is becoming heavily dependent on natural gas. New England relies on natural gas for more than 50 percent of its electricity. Texas, California and Florida depend on gas plants for 75 percent of their power.
Natural gas has a history of wide price swings. Increasing dependence on natural gas for electricity generation could come back to haunt many states. Imagine what the price of natural gas will be in a few years as increasing volumes of natural gas are diverted for industrial purposes and are made available for export to overseas markets.
By contrast, coal is America’s, and the world’s, energy mainstay. Coal is plentiful, and its price is stable. Coal generation accounts for 40 percent of America’s electricity.
Significantly, electricity rates are on average 30 percent lower in states that receive over half of their power from coal generation. “Base-load” power from coal, along with nuclear energy, undergirds the nation’s electric grid and is largely responsible for meeting America’s energy needs. If coal and nuclear plants are closed prematurely due to the availability of gas, many families and small businesses could be hard hit in future years by significantly higher electricity bills.
What should be done?
For starters, keep Michigan’s coal plants in operation. The state public utility commission should do what it can to prevent the premature retirement of coal plants.
Nuclear power is another viable option. A study by the Brookings Institution shows that nuclear plants, which run at over 90 percent capacity, avoid almost four times as much greenhouse-gas emissions per unit of capacity as do wind turbines, which run at about 25 percent; they avoid six times as much as solar arrays do. And the land-use requirements of solar and wind installations should shock anyone who enjoys open green spaces.
Neither solar nor wind has the capability for the large-scale energy storage needed to provide base-load electricity regardless of weather conditions. A dynamic economy cannot depend for its electricity on whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.
As America’s demand for electricity grows, new nuclear plants will go online. Five reactors – two each in Georgia and South Carolina, and one in Tennessee – are under construction. The Georgia and South Carolina reactors use an advanced AP1000 design, in which a plant’s components are built off-site in factories and then delivered for assembly. This has helped hold down costs and prevent construction delays.
NRC is considering Detroit Edison’s request to renew the operating license of Fermi 2 for another 20 years. And Detroit Edison has an application pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a combined construction and operating license should it decide to build another reactor at the Fermi plant. Implicit in projections of future economic growth in Michigan is an assumption that nuclear-generating capacity will increase.
A balanced mix of energy options is an essential characteristic of a robust and resilient system. Without coal and nuclear power, the two sources that can produce power around the clock at stable prices, that diversity is at serious risk. It could expose American consumers and businesses to punishing price volatility and a loss of electricity reliability.
Coal and nuclear power are vital to our nation’s energy security. And despite criticism from their environmental detractors, coal and nuclear power will become even more vital in the years ahead.
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- On February 5, 2015