OPED: Coal emerges as power champ in cold winter

Terry Jarrett
Consultant, commentator

It’s been a rough winter for much of America. As the Department of Energy has reported, a “bomb cyclone” winter storm struck much of the eastern United States in late December and early January. It plunged the region into a deep freeze and sparked a significant rise in demand for additional power. And if that wasn’t enough, winter has also lingered longer than expected, yielding surprise snowstorms in early spring.

Right now, power utilities are busily reviewing the past few months and asking “How did we do?” The surprising answer, according to the Department of Energy (DOE) is that they did all right specifically because coal-generated electricity bore the brunt of eastern United States energy demand during the chilliest parts of Winter 2018.

According to a new report from the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), in January, 2018, “U.S. electricity market experience demonstrated that without the resilience of coal plants…the eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts.”

How is this possible — that coal shouldered most of the burden of keeping America’s lights on? After all, we hear increasing talk about the benefits of wind and solar power, along with more abundant natural gas. The suggestion has been that coal is no longer necessary.

The DOE report found that far from being unnecessary, coal is essential. Coal power plants have the unique ability to store fuel on-site, and they provided 55 percent of incremental daily U.S. power generation this winter. 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.” Specifically, the data showed that coal provided three times the incremental power generation of natural gas and 12 times that of nuclear units.

The report also noted some interesting limits to nuclear power, natural gas, and wind turbines. For example, most nuclear plants were already running at maximum output, and could only provide “negligible additional capacity” during peak conditions. Conversely, a surge in heating demand and pipeline congestion meant that natural gas was limited in adding “resilient capacity” for power plants. Renewable fuels performed even worse.  Available 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.

The bottom line, according to the DOE study, is that coal provided a majority of the daily power generation needed to meet emergency winter conditions. But coal has been on the chopping block for the better part of a decade — which begs the question: What happens if more coal plants are retired? 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.”

America needs a smart energy policy. And that means pursuing an all-of-the-above strategy. For example, there are exciting technologies being developed for wind and solar power. But advanced coal technologies are also emerging, and they can reduce emissions while increasing power generating efficiency. All of this should be pursued since the NETL study worries about the nation’s ability to “respond to weather events if the current rate of coal plant retirements continues.” The answer is to encourage American ingenuity, and include high-tech coal plants in a diverse mix of future power generation sources.

— Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.