A Strategic Electricity Reserve Makes Sense

Because we’re likely to face more extreme weather and higher natural gas costs in the years ahead, the government should establish a strategic electricity reserve as insurance against possible power shortages and sudden spikes in electricity prices.

Although there is enough generating capacity to meet the current demand for power, the loss of many baseload coal and nuclear plants in recent years has weakened the core strength of the nation’s electricity system. An increased shift to natural gas and renewable energy sources has reduced electricity reliability, especially during periods of extreme cold when natural gas supplies can’t keep pace with demand for the fuel.

Unlike other fuel sources, coal and nuclear are not dependent on a just-in-time fuel delivery. Coal plants, in particular, have proven their value by providing additional power in periods of extreme cold when other energy sources are of limited help. For example, during the cold snap in this January, coal plants provided most of the increased power generation needed across the eastern United States.

Recent experience demonstrates the need for an electricity reserve supplied largely by baseload coal and nuclear generation.  Without action to preserve fuel diversity, we are headed toward a precarious overreliance on natural gas and intermittent wind and solar energy.  Moreover, the growing use of gas in some parts of the country such as New England cannot obscure problems stemming from a natural gas shortage due to a lack of pipeline capacity.

The best way to counteract the continuing shutdown of coal and nuclear plants has nothing to do with meddling or mandates and everything to do with ensuring a reliable supply of electricity by keeping a select number of baseload plants in operation. Providing power for a strategic reserve can thereby safeguard the nation’s energy security.

Yes, natural gas is often a less-expensive source of electricity, and while supporting the continued operation of some coal and nuclear plants will have costs, we can’t ignore the cost of failing to keep baseload plants open. For one thing, coal and nuclear power receive no value for the critically important role they play in providing electricity reliability and voltage support to the grid, helping to maintain grid stability.

These are among the unrecognized values of coal and nuclear power, which account for almost one-half of the nation’s generating capacity. They also provide large numbers of well-paying jobs and anchor the local tax base.

As for renewables, such as wind and solar, these sources provide less than 10 percent of American electricity. Also, keep in mind that wind and sun are not always available.

While some energy forecasts project flat electricity demand, recent studies indicate there might be a spike in demand from electrification, including the deployment and adoption of electric vehicles. Providing a strategic electricity reserve to prepare for the uncertainty of future energy needs is essential to ensuring a reliable and affordable supply of electricity.  

Make no mistake, unless action is taken to create an electricity reserve, the result will be higher prices for consumers and a less reliable and resilient grid.

Dr. J. Winston Porter is a national energy and environmental consultant in Atlanta, and previously, he was an assistant administrator of the EPA in Washington, D.C.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult