Given the appeal of emission-free sources of energy, it’s popular these days to talk about producing much more of our nation’s electricity from solar power. But so far, solar is generating more enthusiasm than electricity.
Solar generation in the United States has almost doubled over the past three years, but it still contributes less than 3% of the nation’s electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration. By contrast, natural gas supplies nearly 40%, and coal and nuclear power each account for about 20%. With the reconciliation legislation that would earmark $3.5 trillion for infrastructure improvements, President Joe Biden is counting on greatly increasing solar production; his idealistic goal is for solar to generate 40% of the nation’s electricity by 2035.
That huge leap in solar production, which would require more than a tenfold increase in its share of electricity generation in less than 15 years, is totally unrealistic. Solar energy is far too diluted and variable to provide the prodigious amounts of energy we need. Solar panels only produce power when the sun is shining, and large-scale electricity storage is in its infancy. Economic reality, not vague arguments about the efficacy of green power, ought to influence decisions vital to the U.S. Even the most aggressive solar programs won’t by themselves meet our energy requirements.
Unfortunately, no new coal or nuclear plants have opened in recent years, and many have been prematurely retired. Shuttering coal and nuclear plants in the hopes that renewables can meet our nation’s energy needs has had the perverse effect of discouraging baseload plant construction and undermining electricity reliability.
Because of fumbled energy policies, we have become more vulnerable than ever to an interruption in electricity supplies. Consider what happened in Texas, where the shutdown of more than 5,000 megawatts of coal capacity left the state vulnerable to electricity shortages. As a result, 70% of Texans were without power in February when extreme weather unexpectedly hit the region. While Texans lived from one day to the next without power, the state spent more than $46 billion buying electricity in a single week, five times what Texans spent on electricity in all of 2020.
Coal plants have shown they can produce electricity around the clock, reliably and efficiently, and help meet the needs of millions. In June, coal generation on the PJM grid, the nation’s largest electricity distribution system that extends from Pennsylvania to parts of Illinois, hit a three-year high. Meanwhile, coal demand on the Midcontinent Independent System Operator rose 37% and 42% in the Southwest Power Pool. As the summer went on — and grids were pushed to the limit on some of the hottest days of the year — the importance of baseload power provided by coal’s affordability and grid reliability was unmistakable. On the PJM grid, coal provided a third of the electricity generation. On the SPP grid, nearly half. And on MISO, which serves most of the Midwest, over half of the electricity came from coal plants.
Strong electricity demand is here to stay, and the worst thing policymakers can do is to accelerate the closure of critically important generating capacity. This shouldn’t even be considered until something is done about building a vast, new network of transmission infrastructure and storage. Shutting down coal and nuclear plants in advance of this work is nonsensical.
The early shutdown of baseload plants has several serious implications for the economy and national security. To the extent that solar power and other renewables capture the dominant share of electricity production, shortages will become more likely, putting the nation’s economy at risk. Pundits who believe we should stop fretting about the growing reliance on renewables and the loss of baseload electricity ignore the fact that our digital economy requires an increasing amount of highly reliable, affordable electricity, and that baseload power is needed to undergird the electricity system. We would be taking a huge gamble to think we could meet our everyday electricity needs, power our economy, and compete globally without it.
America cannot afford an energy policy that is tailored to what is most popular politically. We need to focus our efforts on expanding meaningful alternatives that achieve energy security and meet environmental goals without harming the economy. We have both the technology and responsibility to accomplish this successfully.
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- On September 22, 2021