Save Coal and Nuclear Power — We Might Need It
There is nothing more important for future electrical power in the United States than whether, in the wake of an enormous loss of baseload power due to overregulation in recent years, our country preserves financially stressed nuclear and coal plants for essential baseload power.
Although the Trump administration has taken steps to address the overzealous rules that have affected nuclear and coal plants and forced more than 120,000 megawatts from these entities into retirement since 2010, it’s clear the problem persists and more must be done. Currently, 17,000 MW of coal-fired power are expected to be lost this year, and several large nuclear plants could close.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry has devised a farsighted plan to require grid operators to buy power from economically struggling coal and nuclear plants. Under the plan, the federal government would purchase electricity from these plants for two years using its authority under the Federal Power Act and the Defense Production Act. The plan also calls for creation of a new “strategic electric generation reserve” to undergird national security. Such a plan will ensure that adequate baseload electric power is available whenever and wherever it is required, especially when renewables are unavailable or are inadequate to meet power demands. After Germany elected to eliminate nuclear from its electric grid, renewables could not meet power demand during unfavorable weather conditions. So old coal-fired plants were brought online to meet these transient power requirements with obvious, unfavorable environmental impacts.
We are facing crucial times in America’s energy situation. The National Electric Reliability Council recently warned that the country will face operational and potential reliability concerns this summer. The most vulnerable areas are Texas and Southern California, where a shortage of natural gas is compounding the problem and baseload is threatened.
In Texas, wind power customarily supplies a sizable share of the state’s electricity. But on hot, windless summer days, electric power from nuclear and coal plants must keep the lights on and the economy running.
The Department of Energy realizes that nuclear and coal plants are essential to national security because these plants, unlike natural gas plants, store fuel onsite. “Federal action is necessary to stop the further premature retirements of fuel-secure generation capacity,” the department said.
With the outlook for coal and nuclear power uncertain, a possible lack of electricity reliability has evolved into a national problem. Earlier this year, the Pittsburgh-based National Energy Technology Laboratory warned about the threat of the continued loss of baseload generation, especially if the eastern United States experiences another “bomb cyclone” winter storm of the kind that occurred last year. The laboratory said if it hadn’t been for the resilience of coal plants’ ability to add 24-hour baseload capacity, the eastern United States would have suffered “severe electricity shortages,” likely leading to widespread blackouts. A further study said that as winter temperatures dropped and demand for power soared, coal provided 55 percent of the incremental daily generation needed.
If action is not taken to save coal and nuclear plants, many of them won’t be available to come to the rescue next time. The looming prospect of a large part of the nation’s baseload electrical supply vanishing is “harmful to American interests,” said Kevin McIntyre, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The implications for of this are far-reaching. An assured supply of electricity is crucial for our economy and strength as the world’s leading democracy. The Trump administration should take the lead in saving coal and nuclear plants, the irreversible loss of which would undermine the nation’s energy system and result in significant economic disruption.
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- On June 13, 2018