When it comes to the global-warming debate, mischaracterizations abound. For example, the term “denier” is often used — suggesting someone doesn’t believe the Earth has warmed over the past century.
In fact, the scientific community is split over the primary driver of contemporary warming — whether it’s rising carbon dioxide (CO2) or increased solar output. Similarly, the debate over CO2 reduction gets trapped in an all-or-nothing ideological divide. Those supporting the continued use of coal and nuclear power are criticized — even if their reasoning is the need to continue supplying sufficient, affordable electricity to 330 million Americans each day.
The Trump administration is about to jump into this polarizing split when it issues a final “Affordable Clean Energy” (ACE) rule to replace President Barack Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan. Critics say the ACE rule doesn’t require sufficient CO2 reductions, and it’s an attempt to extend the life of coal plants.
But this overlooks a fundamental question: Can the United States shut down its coal and nuclear power plants, yet still supply the nation with 24/7 electricity?
It would be terrific if the answer were “yes.” But the United States relies on an awful lot of nonstop electricity. The daily demands of metropolitan drinking water and sewage treatment alone require massive amounts of electricity.
According to the U.S. Electricity Information Administration (EIA), America’s electricity demand continually runs between 400,000 and 600,000 megawatts. By comparison, 1 megawatt can power as many as 750 homes.
The ACE takes a pragmatic approach to supporting America’s power grid. It asks, “How can we reduce CO2 emissions, but still make sure we have sufficient electricity each day?” That’s a far different calculation from simply racing to eliminate overall CO2 emissions. And ACE takes a practical approach, since it recognizes the U.S. power grid is already showing signs of strain.
Since 2010, roughly 40% of America’s coal fleet has been shut down — enough power generation for 40 million homes. And this has come at a tangible cost. In January, the heads of four major U.S. utility providers sent a letter to the regional transmission organization PJM Interconnection warning about the effects of lost “baseload” power. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) has similarly cautioned about the impacts of a rapid shift to wind, solar and natural gas.
The U.S. is embracing wider natural gas use. But pipeline capacity to deliver that gas is reaching its limits, especially during periods of high demand. And wind turbines can fail during weather disruptions.
The nation still needs backup power from coal — something Missouri learned during January’s brutal cold snap. As Mid-continent Independent System Operator (MISO) reported, January’s frigid weather resulted in “high load, unavailable generation, and uncertainty in both load and supply.” A key problem was “a sudden and unexpected drop in wind generation.”
In Missouri, we generate 73% of our electricity from coal. ACE would allow us to continue using coal, provided utilities reduce CO2 emissions. That’s now feasible, thanks to High-efficiency, Low-emissions (HELE) plants that burn coal hotter and more efficiently. These HELE systems could be game-changing for Missouri, since they raise coal-burning efficiencies from the typical 33% to a more optimum 40%. Overall, HELE technologies could reduce coal-plant carbon dioxide emissions by up to 21%.
ACE recognizes coal and nuclear plants provide the only reliable options for long-term baseload electricity — since they store fuel on-site. Natural gas plants, in contrast, are constrained by the limits of pipelines stretching across the continent — something ISO New England is warning about.
The ACE rule allows for reasonable, affordable emissions reductions at the baseload power plants on which Missouri still relies. Since coal will remain a part of America’s electricity portfolio for years to come, it makes sense to embrace new technologies in a balanced energy mix.d
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- On June 17, 2019