The United States is barreling toward an energy crisis that is mostly of our own making. Coal-fired power plants are closing at a rapid rate. While new generation is not replacing lost capacity at the same rate. Federal and state regulations along with industry and corporate net-zero goals are responsible for this condition.
Despite very clear warnings from the nation’s grid reliability regulators and grid operators, forced coal plant closures are accelerating and now moving far faster than they can be reliably replaced. Not only does that threaten blackouts, it’s also driving up energy prices.
As events this winter demonstrated, the coal fleet kept residential, commercial, and industrial customers warm and safe as temperatures plunged. During cold, cloudy and windless days – where renewable power is of little help and when natural gas supplies are pinched with gas going towards residential heating needs – coal plants ramp up, providing a reliable backstop we can’t afford to lose. We should thankfully recognize the importance of the coal fleet and embrace the role it needs to continue to play as we navigate towards our energy future. Also, we cannot ignore the economic costs endured by coal plants when they are operated in an inefficient way. Coal plants run best when held at a steady state and not ramped up or down.
Coal plants continue to produce 20% of the nation’s power and considerably more in many midwestern states. On bitter cold days, coal generation often meets 50% of power demand throughout much of the country.
Consider the PJM regional transmission organization, stretching from Illinois to Virginia and serving 65 million Americans. Over Christmas, a winter storm slammed the country and nearly forced blackouts in parts of the PJM service territory. PJM was forced to send text messages and tweets to consumers to reduce power demand in a last-ditch effort to prevent blackouts. Frigid temperatures had knocked much of PJM’s generating capacity offline – some 32 gigawatts of natural gas power plants faced outages or were unavailable because natural gas supply went to home heating – but the lights stayed on. While coal plants also faced challenges, the region’s coal capacity came to the rescue, providing 47% of increased power supply when the grid needed it most.
Similar warnings were issued by MISO, a 15-state system operator serving much of Mid-America. Many coal-fired plants in this region have shut down due to environmental regulations.
The nation’s remaining coal facilities are a critical part to the reliability of the transmission grid and ultimately our standard of living. This administration does not agree with this assessment. The EPA continues a regulatory assault on fossil-fueled power plants. Each new regulation is stacked on previous rules creating a massive compliance problem for the utilities and coal-fired power plants. The managers at many utilities are evaluating the current legal and regulatory environment along with net-zero commitments by businesses and deciding to close coal and natural gas plants and install solar and wind generation. These decisions are the foundation of future grid reliability difficulties.
According to a new study from PJM, accelerating plant retirements could mean the grid loses 40 gigawatts of power generating capacity by 2030 with only 30 gigawatts of replacement capacity coming online. Of the 40 gigawatts of losses, a startling 25 gigawatts is policy-driven, namely a product of EPA’s agenda.
Making matters worse, power demand is expected to rapidly grow over the next decade with rapid additions of electric vehicles and energy-hungry data centers. If the challenge wasn’t steep enough, the projected replacement capacity won’t have nearly the reliability attributes of what it’s supposed to replace. Wind and solar additions, even when paired with battery storage, don’t begin to offer the same kind of dependability offered by an on-demand coal plant with months of fuel on site.
Despite claims otherwise, battery storage isn’t a cure-all for the unreliability of renewable power. Current grid-scale batteries offer about four hours of storage, helping fill small holes when the weather doesn’t cooperate or to move solar power from peak supply midday to the evening. In PJM, the winter load curve has two peaks, one in the morning and one in the evening. Solar will not provide any electricity at 7:00 to 8:00 on a December or January morning. Nor will batteries provide the needed electrons. How will we maintain our lifestyles when we cannot keep the lights on?
A recent study examining California’s renewable potential found that in 2018 California had 90 days with little or no wind generation, and no wind for as many as 10 consecutive days. Last winter in Texas illustrates the seriousness of depending on wind energy. The Texas grid has many problems that contributed to the blackouts but the point is the wind turbines did not produce much electricity.
The potential transition to ever-greater reliance on unreliable renewable energy will not be easy. The electric grid is a complex system consisting of generation, transmission, and distribution assets. Modifying one component will affect the other parts. Currently, many policymakers are not considering the consequences of their actions with predictable disastrous outcomes. The current thermal fleet – coal, natural gas, and nuclear – are needed for reliability.
This potential transition to a zero-carbon dioxide grid is going to be extraordinarily complex and we must not pretend otherwise. When grid reliability regulators and grid operators tell us to move carefully, to value the existing generating capacity we have, we better listen. Letting EPA dictate energy policy – when it has no skin in the game for keeping the lights on – is a recipe for disaster.
The case for maintaining our coal fleet as an essential reliability backstop is overwhelming. The dangers of not doing so – risking brownouts and blackouts that leave millions of Americans in the dark and without heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer – are too great to be ignored.
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- On March 27, 2023