The Eastern United States is probably breathing a sigh of relief that summer is finally here. In part, that’s because early 2018 saw a particularly brutal stretch of winter.
But it wasn’t just a “bomb cyclone” that chilled millions of homes this past winter. It was the prospect of brownouts and power shortages occurring as regional grid operators struggled to meet hefty surges in electricity demand.
How bad did it get in the Eastern states? For starters, oil-burning power plants in New England ran short on fuel. And New England also faced added challenges from insufficient natural gas pipeline capacity. But during the recent winter peak, all of America’s 99 nuclear power stations ran simultaneously to help keep the grid intact. Despite this, some natural gas plants in the Midwest experienced trouble in obtaining fuel supplies, forcing outages and an increased reliance on fuel oil.
The biggest news, though, according to the Department of Energy, was that coal-generated electricity bore the brunt of America’s increased energy demand during the chilliest parts of winter 2018. The DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory reported that “without the resilience of coal plants … the eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts.”
The DOE report brought home a stark truth: Coal power plants provided 55 percent of incremental daily U.S. power generation this winter. And for the largest grid operators, coal provided the “most resilient form of generation due to available reserve capacity and on-site fuel availability, far exceeding all other sources.” Overall, coal yielded three times the incremental power generation of natural gas and 12 times that of nuclear units.
The DOE also noted some interesting limits to nuclear power, natural gas and wind turbines. The surge in heating demand and pipeline congestion meant that natural gas was limited in adding “resilient capacity” for power plants. And wind energy was 12 percent lower during the “bomb cyclone” than for a typical winter day, resulting in a need for “dispatchable” fossil fuel generation to make up the difference.
It appears that coal remains the most ready source of reliable, affordable power for the nation. And yet it has been on the chopping block for the better part of a decade. It’s a worrying situation, since one NETL analyst cautions that “removing coal from the energy mix would worsen threats to the electrical grid’s dependability during future severe weather events.”
And that brings us to a new, looming problem. The North American Electric Reliability Corp. is now projecting possible electricity shortages this summer for both Texas and California. But why would two of the country’s largest states face potential reliability shortfalls? Because Texas has lost roughly 4.5 gigawatts of coal generation due to recent power plant retirements. And California — which relies heavily on natural gas — is experiencing troubles with natural gas output due to ongoing constraints at the large Aliso Canyon storage facility.
The bottom line, according to the recent DOE study, is that coal provided a majority of the daily power generation needed this winter to meet emergency conditions. Which begs a question: What happens if more of America’s coal plants are retired? Texas and California are now grappling with exactly that scenario, which suggests that America must get serious about securing sufficient electricity for a nation of 325 million people.
The recent NETL study expressed concern about the nation’s ability to “respond to weather events if the current rate of coal plant retirements continues.” For California and Texas, that moment appears to have arrived.
The United States must actively pursue an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. No doubt, advances in wind and solar power are continuing. But advanced coal technologies are now emerging, too, and they offer the promise of both reduced emissions and far greater power-generating efficiencies.
Meeting baseload power needs isn’t trivial, however, which is why high-tech ingenuity must be brought to bear on assembling a diverse mix of power sources for future generations.
Terry Jarrett has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.
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