Keeping coal plants viable only makes sense


Last updated 5/9/2018 at 10:41pm

Over the past decade, a revolution in the U.S. gas industry has clouded the outlook for coal in the production of electricity.

Coal’s share of the nation’s power supply has tumbled from more than 50 percent to 30 percent today.

But don’t count out coal. The real question is not how many coal plants will be shuttered in the next few years, but rather can the decline be slowed?

An estimated 17,000 megawatts of coal-based power is slated for retirement this year. What does the future hold at this pace of capacity loss?

A little-noticed report on electricity reliability from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory warns about the threat of the continued loss of baseload generation, especially if there is another “bomb cyclone” winter storm.

“U.S. electricity marketplace experience demonstrated that without the resilience of coal plants — its ability to add 24-hour baseload capacity — the eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts,” the NETL report said.

Utilities have warned that the loss of large amounts of baseload power undermines the nation’s energy system. What’s causing the loss of power-generating capacity and threat to the grid’s reliability? Overzealous regulation, cheap natural gas and heavy subsidies for wind and solar.

But in extreme weather of the kind that the eastern United States experienced last winter, the problems become magnified.

Yet coal, the very source of power most often maligned by environmental activists, came to the rescue. The NETL study found that as temperatures dropped and demand for power soared, coal provided 55 percent of the incremental daily generation needed.

Peter Balash, an author of the report, said, “coal was the most resilient form of power generation during the event and that removing coal from the energy mix would worsen threats to the electrical grid’s dependability.”

If action isn’t taken to better value these coal plants, many of them won’t be there to come to the rescue the next time.

We’re not facing the loss of several old coal plants but rather the loss of an entire source of electricity. The looming prospect of an entire energy industry and its supply chain vanishing is “harmful to American interests,” said Kevin McIntyre, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in recent testimony before Congress.

The strength of our electricity grid lies in the diversity of our sources of generation. That diversity is already gone in some states and it’s eroding in numerous others.

Our electricity market is well designed to value the cheapest source of energy in the best weather conditions but it leaves us vulnerable when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Clearly there needs to be a change in how coal plants are valued.

A Senate bill has been introduced to provide tax credits for coal plant operations. Subsidizing the continued operation of coal plants makes sense.

Jim Constantopoulos is a geology professor at Eastern New Mexico University. Contact him at: [email protected]


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