Here’s an important question: Just how much of Nebraska’s electricity is supplied by coal? The answer is far more than one might guess.
In fact, Nebraska gets 72 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants. But what if Nebraska were suddenly forced to seek its electricity from other sources. Could the state could find enough electricity to meet demand during peak use, or would it experience higher utility prices and potential blackouts?
These are important questions to ask as President Obama looks to implement strict new rules on carbon dioxide emissions.
His administration is hoping to vastly reduce America’s use of coal through a hastily assembled plan by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would likely force the closure of hundreds of domestic coal-fired power plants. If coal-supplied power is in jeopardy, then what’s really at issue is long-term “grid reliability.”
Simply put, will power supplies continue to exist in order to meet the current, massive U.S. demand for electricity? At the very least, the EPA’s mandate poses a risk to grid stability, since roughly 40 percent of electricity in the United States comes from coal-fired power generation. Under the new regulations from the EPA, many of the nation’s coal-fire power plants would be effectively forced out of operation.
And to date, no one is saying how that power will be otherwise produced. Wind, solar, and natural gas have all been suggested, but none is capable of providing reliable and affordable electricity like coal can. Some states are able to rely on alternative sources, like wind and hydropower, but that simply isn’t an option for much of the country.
The importance of coal in generating electricity was all too clearly demonstrated last winter, though, when coal-fired plants worked overtime to heat homes and businesses during a deep freeze. In fact, American Electric Power, a major utility company, reported that 90 percent of its coal plants slated for retirement under pending EPA rules were running at full speed just to meet peak demand. Despite record-setting production in the Marcellus Shale and elsewhere, natural gas simply can’t compensate for a shortage of coal plants.
This is due in part to a lack of infrastructure to deliver gas where it’s needed. But more importantly, natural gas has already been prioritized for home use, not power generation. A recent report from PJM Interconnection, the regional power transmission group for 13 states, concluded that, without coal plants, there could be insufficient electricity to meet peak winter demand.
Under the EPA’s “Clean Power Plan,” consumers will undoubtedly pay higher electricity bills. But the more tragic problem is the possibility of widespread power outages during the coldest parts of winter. These worrisome scenarios have so far been swept aside by the federal government. The shift away from coal is simply moving ahead with no regard for the consequences. |
And so, in light of the recent PJM report, the EPA’s regulatory plan amounts to very reckless toying with the nation’s power grid.
The truth is that there’s simply no way around the use of coal to help ensure affordable and reliable power in the current market. It’s the reason that state utility commissions and regulators from 22 states have sent formal comments to the EPA expressing concern that the Clean Power Plan will jeopardize dependable and economical electricity supplies. The bottom line is that the U.S. needs a diversified power portfolio, including coal, to meet the nation’s electricity needs, and state governors should reject the EPA’s plan as risky and impractical.
Terry Jarrett served as a Missouri Public Service commissioner and chairman of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ Committee on Critical Infrastructure.
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- On April 27, 2015