The number of coal and nuclear power plants that have closed in recent years could power tens of millions of homes. In April, Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked for a report on whether continued closures pose a threat, and whether the markets are adequately compensating the resilience benefits these “baseload” or “always on” power plants provide. Energy supply is critical, especially in emergency circumstances. We need the most secure and reliable generation we can provide.
The DOE report is in, and it shows we have work to do: “Recent severe weather events have demonstrated the need to improve system resilience … [L]ow average wholesale energy prices, while beneficial for buyers of wholesale electricity, represent a critical juncture for many existing baseload generation resources and their role in preserving reliability and resilience. . . . Markets need further study and reform to address future services essential to grid reliability and resilience.” The reference to “severe weather events” was even before Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as severe cold weather is every bit as challenging.
As soon as the study was first announced, the political lines were drawn. “Rick Perry Thinks You’re Stupid,” screamed the headline of a Sierra Club article, claiming the study was “attempting to stop the renewable revolution.” Advanced Energy Economy wrote, “Though off base from the start, we can only expect that such a study, with its apparently predetermined result, will lead to policy action that will attempt to harm” wind and solar energy.
Let’s be clear – this study was about keeping the lights on. Its analysis was long overdue, even though much of the information was gathered during my tenure as assistant secretary of fossil energy in the first term of the Obama administration. Our information raised concerns that purposely were not made public at that time because it would have exposed flaws with regulations the Environmental Protection Agency ultimately imposed on CO2 emissions. That lack of forthrightness in government should disturb us all.
Since it’s impossible to store electricity in society-sized amounts, we need power generators that can run all the time. Coal and nuclear can run on demand to serve this need. So also can other power plants – natural gas, hydropower, geothermal and others.
But over recent years we have seen a steady decrease in coal and nuclear power and a rise of less reliable sources like wind and solar thanks to government incentives and tax credits. Wind and solar do sometimes produce more power than we need, but not nearly enough at other times. Ability to produce on demand is a fundamental pillar of the power system, but the country continues move away from sources that can do so without addressing the market and economic needs of “always on” baseload generators. That is a long-term formula for disaster.
The shale revolution has made gas plentiful and inexpensive. It certainly helps, but there are limitations. Some states have banned fracking. Many do not have pipeline infrastructure to deliver gas, and have created roadblocks and barriers to building gas pipelines. And unlike coal and nuclear, gas cannot be stored on site, making it more vulnerable to supply disruption and market variability. Should anything happen to those pipelines, there must be a way to secure fuel from elsewhere.
That’s exactly why we must keep coal and nuclear in the “all of the above” energy mix. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the overseer of grid reliability, reports, “The rapid changes occurring in the generation resource mix and technologies are altering the operational characteristics of the grid and will challenge system planners and operators to maintain reliability.”
I believe CO2 plays a role in climate change, but controlling its output cannot be the exclusive definition of environmental responsibility. We have to be honest about both environmental considerations and the necessity of power sources that can produce energy on demand.
Now that DOE has studied, the government must act. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has jurisdiction to oversee wholesale electricity markets and can help ensure that we make power increasingly environmentally responsible through technology while investing in solving all of the challenges that comprise reliability.
DOE has thankfully invested in and embraced the analysis and has the opportunity to influence and direct agencies such as FERC to act. Our public good demands that action.
Charles McConnell is executive director of Rice University’s Energy and Environment Initiative and previously served as assistant secretary of energy under former President Barack Obama from 2011-2013.
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