Coal Key for Essential Electricity this Winter

Author: Rich Nolan

There’s no doubt about it — our nation’s energy experts and grid operators are now facing the considerable challenge of ensuring our electric grid is reliable this winter.

The North American Reliability Corporation (NERC) recently delivered a dire winter assessment. Among the main takeaways from the report, NERC wrote, “A large portion of the North American BPS is at risk of insufficient electricity supplies during peak winter conditions,” and “Generator fuel supplies remain at risk during extreme, long-duration cold weather events.”

In sum, NERC suggests that we’re headed for a winter disaster in the coming months. This should not be news to anyone. The warnings from grid operators, electric co-ops, state officials and reliability regulators have been growing in urgency all year. And despite these warnings, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been charging ahead with a regulatory agenda designed to shut down coal plants and only make the grid’s current challenges even worse.

NERC’s report, in fact, named coal as an “important fuel for electricity generation,” signaling that coal is a critical part of the equation for reliability. To solve the mounting problem of balancing the electric grid, we must keep coal in the energy mix and the EPA must recognize the value of existing generation.

The Grid Needs Coal

We have seen severe energy crises over the past few years. These difficult and often life-threatening events have also been flanked by rising electricity prices and acute grid reliability warnings. Despite considerable additions of renewable generating capacity, new resources and the enabling infrastructure they require are not coming online nearly as quickly as the existing generating resources they are meant to replace are retiring. Reserve margins are falling and grid operators are finding themselves short of capacity when they need it most.

Coal is a reliable, on-demand source of power generation that has proven to be a reliability backstop during periods of peak power demand when other resources falter. Simply put, coal is an indispensable part of meeting our energy needs in a balanced and secure way. And this winter, without enough coal in the energy mix, we’ll be getting a vicious dose of reality when the heat goes out at 2 a.m. and it’s below zero.

As meteorologists forecast harsh temperatures, grid operators are bracing for what will essentially be a test of our grid resilience. The grislier the weather, the higher the demand for electricity. Coal’s role in ensuring that our grid remains reliable during these winter months has never been more vital.

The Price of Prematurely Retiring Coal Plants

How did we get to this point? The answer is simple. We’ve retired too many coal plants prematurely and continue to do so. We need policies that consider a balance between exploring new energy technologies while maintaining a stable energy supply with domestic coal assets. Accelerating the closure of essential coal generating capacity — as the EPA is working to do — is a recipe for disaster.

The Biden administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan 2.0 — just one of a blitz of rules targeting the coal fleet — would force a drastic number of coal and natural gas plants offline nearly overnight. With an already stressed power system, enacting the Clean Power Plan 2.0 would be a grave mistake that undercuts the nation’s dispatchable power at the worst possible time.

We need policies that are truly reflective of our current energy reality, not based on hopes, dreams and arbitrary targets. When policymakers understand the clear picture of our energy landscape, they recognize that a diverse energy mix is essential to grid reliability; with coal playing a foundational role in keeping the heat and lights on this winter. In the coming months, we are going to see our grid put to the test, and our coal-powered assets will keep the lights and heat on — in the regions where it is still available.