Remember the last time you lost power at home. Even if you went without electricity for only for a few minutes, it was an inconvenience, right? Now, imagine it is the coldest stretch in years. What happens if the electricity goes out for days at a time during this brutal cold? Think about the impact that could have, especially on the most vulnerable living amongst us.
Most Americans take reliable electricity for granted. We turn on the switch and it’s there. But as a result of policies and technologies that have transformed the way we generate and transmit electricity, we are sacrificing reliability and putting our electric grid at risk. The good news is this problem has finally caught the eye of decision-makers in Washington.
For generations, coal has been the backbone of America’s economy, producing electricity to power our homes, schools, offices and factories. There’s a reason our country has been powered by coal for over a century — it is the cheapest, most reliable source of energy on the planet.
Our power grid was designed on resilient baseload power, which requires reliability on both ends of the supply chain — both at the source as well as delivery. There are two main sources of baseload power — coal and nuclear energy.
Yet over the past decade, our baseload capacity has eroded. The policies and regulations imposed by President Barack Obama forced more than 250 coal-fired plants to close. As a result, coal has declined from around 50 percent of electricity generation in 2008 to 30 percent today. Obama’s mission to move America away from coal has come at the expense of both American workers and our energy security.
Renewable resources such as wind and solar should be part of an all-of-the-above energy plan. But even when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining they fail to come close to meeting our country’s energy needs.
By their nature, they are intermittent source of energy. Until there are advancements in energy storage, that will be a downside to renewables.
Thanks to the shale revolution, natural gas is abundant and cheap. As a result, it has been growing as a share of electric generation. However, natural gas is vulnerable to wild fluctuations in price, especially during a disaster or severe weather.
In 2014, natural gas was unable to meet the spike in demand from the record polar vortex that brought frigid weather to the east coast. The extreme cold shut down schools across the region and caused 21 people to die. Natural gas was in short supply, forcing power plants to scale back or shut down operations. The price of natural gas spiked to what would be the equivalent of paying $85 for a gallon of gasoline.
While building out the natural gas pipeline infrastructure across the country will help alleviate some of those problems, bottlenecks will remain a challenge. At the same time, other important uses for natural gas — exports of LNG, manufacturing, and petrochemicals and plastics — will increase in demand and drive prices up. Natural gas will play an important role in electric generation, but it can’t replace the dependability of coal or nuclear — which is always available when you need it.
The situation before us is not merely a challenge or an inconvenience. It is a crisis waiting to happen. If we wait until a natural disaster wipes out our capabilities, or fail to respond until a terrorist attack strikes the power grid, it will already be too late. We will be crippled by our dependence on unreliable energy and the price will be steep. Lives are at stake. Yet many in Washington have failed to take this problem seriously.
Thankfully the Trump administration and Energy Secretary Rick Perry understand the value of reliable, dependable, resilient energy sources. The Department of Energy is currently undertaking a study on the state of our electric grid and energy security. I expect the study will reveal to Washington what we in West Virginia already know — the war on coal and reliable energy needs to be reversed immediately.
It will be up to President Donald Trump and his administration to work together with Congress to address this problem. We must find a way to ensure our energy portfolio values reliability and affordability, not just a political agenda.
Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) represents West Virginia’s First Congressional District. He serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee and is chairman of the Congressional Coal Caucus. He is one of two licensed engineers in Congress.
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