A Reliable Grid Needs Coal 

Author: Rich Nolan
A Reliable Grid Needs Coal

The last several years have seen energy crises across Europe, grid warnings in the U.S., and soaring electricity prices everywhere.

Here at home, grid operators and regulators have warned for years about their concerns over the pace of our energy transition and what it means for the ability to deliver electricity to the American people during periods of peak demand, especially when extreme weather hits during the winter and summer months. The answer to energy reliability? Fuel-secure coal power.

Prematurely removing our coal capacity through policy mandates, without having reliable alternatives or the infrastructure in place to replace it, only further exacerbates energy affordability and reliability challenges in the U.S. As an increasing amount of electricity comes from intermittent renewable capacity, on-demand, fuel-secure power from coal plants is an essential piece of a responsible energy transition. Without it, we can’t ensure energy affordability or grid reliability, period.

Blackouts and Price Hikes Are Here to Stay (For Now)

While it might have seemed like Texas’ grid catastrophe back in February 2021 when 4.5 million homes lost power was an outlier event, mounting reliability challenges in Texas and other regions prove it was only the beginning of a new reality. Earlier this year more than 430,000 homes and businesses in Texas lost power in below-freezing temperatures. Californians spent the summer dialing back power usage to avert rolling blackouts. And over Christmas, thousands of consumers in Tennessee and the Carolinas experienced rolling blackouts as power demand surged past available supply. The PJM grid, which serves 65 million Americans from Illinois to New Jersey, barely kept the lights on. Coal capacity came to the rescue there, providing 47 percent of the increased power to meet peak demand. Bloomberg reported that the retirements of as many as 40 U.S. coal power plants have been delayed due to operators’ reliability concerns.

Aside from putting our most vulnerable populations at risk, including children and older adults, blackouts have devastating effects on our economy. Unfortunately, the trajectory we’re on strongly suggests this is a situation that could get worse before it gets better. Planners at PJM, for example, are warning that their grid – the nation’s largest – is going to be woefully short of capacity by 2030 as essential coal plants are pushed off the grid far faster than alternatives can take their place.

These alarming reliability challenges are compounded by the costs facing consumers from tight energy supplies and the return of natural gas price volatility. From California to Massachusetts, sky-high gas prices are shouldering consumers with eye-watering heating and electricity bills.

In a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom, asked for “immediate attention” to alarmingly high gas prices in his state. Heating bills in California are proving to be double or triple what they had been a year ago.

In Colorado, energy customers across the state are struggling to stay warm. Governor Jared Polis is urging state agencies to find short-term solutions to help bring down rising energy costs. Colorado residents have seen a 75 percent increase in gas bills compared to this time last year. Local non-profits that help citizens struggling to stay warm this winter are receiving up to 18,000 calls per week from people needing energy assistance.

In Massachusetts, the state’s largest utility raised residential electricity rates approximately 64 percent. A spokesman told The Hill that the global energy crisis and supply constraints are “being acutely felt in New England and Massachusetts because natural gas is the fuel that drives electricity prices and our region is supply constrained.”

While the war in Ukraine continues to destabilize energy markets, and winter weather wreaks havoc on citizens living with unreliable, expensive grids, coal remains a dependable and affordable fuel source. The U.S. coal fleet must remain a foundational component of our energy mix, providing reliable power during peak demand, especially during bitter cold.

Policies Need to Focus on Reliability, Not Just Generation Sources

The truth of the matter is that many policymakers are ignoring the facts that underpin the coal-to-renewables hurdles. The policies driving the transformation of the energy grid are not balanced with an acknowledgement of on-the-ground realities and what’s needed to keep the lights on. Beyond the towering costs of building and integrating wind turbines and solar panels, even states with the most enthusiasm for renewables are facing fierce local opposition to siting proposed projects and the infrastructure they require, leaving a gap where policy and reality are colliding in real time.

As mandates for renewables accelerate, neither interstate transmission infrastructure nor long-duration energy storage can be completed in time or brought to market to address the reliability needs that currently exist and that are accelerating with each premature coal plant retirement.

A diverse energy mix that is supported by coal-powered plants, not in place of them, is crucial to ensuring all Americans can afford to keep their homes heated and lit. Until we recognize the need for an energy policy reset, we can expect our energy situation to remain uneasy, unreliable and potentially poised to fail us when we need it most.