Coal’s Place in America’s Energy Equation

Author: Rich Nolan
Coal power plant providing stable electricity supply.

As the U.S. energy policy landscape continues to shift, a crucial dialogue on electricity stability is gaining momentum. Many are waking up to the reality that this administration is recklessly rushing to close well-operating coal plants in favor of renewable energy sources that have not been permitted or built and, in doing so, disregarding many experts’ views that our grid is teetering on the edge of failure. If these retirements continue unchecked, the combination of decreasing capacity and explosive demand growth is bound to push it over the edge.

Any savvy person knows that it’s not smart to put all our eggs in one basket, especially a basket that’s known to be full of holes. Coal’s unique attributes – as a fuel source that can ramp up during demand surges, ability to be stored on-site, and extensive domestic reserves – are unique among our electricity generation options making coal – along with nuclear – the reliability lynchpin of today’s electricity grid. Even the most aggressive supporter of renewables must admit that we have vastly more work in front of us to site, permit and build the grid of the future. We need to prioritize a balanced approach to energy that reflects that reality and safeguards reliability, affordability and security.

Unwavering Coal in Turbulent Times

Coal’s significance in ensuring grid reliability, especially during extreme weather events, is undeniable. Both in extreme winter cold when natural gas is diverted for heating and pipelines freeze, and during heat waves when power demand surges, wind power plummets, and solar generation tapers off overnight, coal power plants emerge as pillars of stability.

In the Biden administration’s energy policy, natural gas seems to be the reliability crutch on which it has chosen to lean. This is a mistake.

The vulnerabilities of the gas grid during extreme weather conditions, as evidenced by the rolling blackouts and system failures experienced in recent years, raise significant concerns. Over reliance on gas, particularly when its delivery systems have proven to be the Achilles’ heel during crises, is a literal gamble on our national security and safety. I’m not alone in this concern — experts and regulators are sounding alarms about the gas system’s fragility and the lack of comprehensive federal reliability standards.

Reevaluating Energy Policy: A Call for Balance

The current trajectory of energy policy and regulation, particularly the EPA’s stance on coal, reveals a concerning oversight: meeting soaring electricity demand. By favoring natural gas and other less reliable energy sources, and pushing aside coal, we are already teetering on the edge of crisis. But surging new power demand from the rapid growth of data centers and AI, as well as electrification, is making the challenge of navigating the energy transition doubly difficult.

The North American Reliability Corporation (NERC) has already signaled potential blackout risks across most of the country over the next decade. The leading cause is the collision of rising demand along with the rapid loss of 83 gigawatts of existing baseload power plants, power plants capable of generating electricity to power 60 million homes.

Americans want a secure and reliable supply of power, and they remain strongly in favor of a balanced energy mix that includes coal. Eight in 10 Americans support an “all of the above” energy strategy for reliability, with 65% opposing the shutdown of existing coal plants before replacement generation is built and operational, according to recent polling conducted by Maru Public Opinion.

Coal Means Security for Today and Tomorrow

As we look ahead, properly valuing the role of coal in America’s energy equation is not just wise, it’s imperative.

Embracing a balanced energy approach means acknowledging the complexity of our energy needs and the current limitations of our technology and infrastructure. It’s a recognition that true sustainability encompasses not only environmental considerations but also the reliability, affordability and security of our energy supply. The goal is clear: to achieve a sustainable, secure and resilient energy future. But to get there, we must employ a pragmatic, all-encompassing strategy that leverages the strengths of all available resources, including reliable coal.