Time for Action From Washington to Secure Our Energy Future

Time for Action From Washington to Secure Our Energy Future
Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP

In newspapers throughout the United States and across social media platforms, a similar story continues to be told. As our nation’s power grid increasingly migrates toward natural gas and renewables, coal-fueled power plants are closing at a steady and alarming rate.

Print and social media coverage of these closures often focuses on the consequences, such as the loss of good-paying jobs and the depletion of tax and royalty revenues, but then quickly counters with the trending market forces that have led the nation — for good or ill — to increasingly turn away from coal.

While these market dynamics are worthy of closer examination, there is much more to this disturbing trend. In fact, the closer we look at the impact of the transition away from coal on the electric power system, the more cause there is for concern.

Natural gas — along with renewable power sources like wind and solar — does play a crucial role in our nation’s energy future. But as our grid continues to shift to these sources, regulators and policymakers must acknowledge a very clear fact: The more we move away from coal, the more vulnerable the system becomes.

This should be of great concern for all us, from families and small businesses to manufacturing and — perhaps most importantly — even the defense community. For all of its merits, natural gas is not a resilient fuel and is simply not capable of generating enough power to meet electricity demand under adverse conditions, such as extreme cold weather.

One of coal’s most critical advantages is the ease with which it can be transported and stored in bulk whenever and wherever it is needed. Coal-fueled power plants provide reliable, resilient baseload generating capacity because they can keep many weeks’ worth of fuel onsite, ready for use when other supply chains are either interrupted or unavailable.

Our natural gas supply system cannot do that. Gas facilities receive fuel from an infrastructure network consisting of thousands of miles of pipelines. Under ordinary conditions, this pipeline network — though occasionally strained — can keep up with demand. But the real challenge comes when conditions divert from the “ordinary,” which is precisely when the resilient and reliable power benefits generated by coal plants become most obvious.

Perhaps most troubling, natural gas delivery is far from reliable and error-free. Supply disruptions — whether driven by huge demand surges or an interruption in pipeline service — would leave consumers at risk of power outages. This would not be the case with the baseload power generated by coal and nuclear power plants. When pipelines close down or when demand outpaces their capacity, natural gas lacks a backup plan. Yet, both coal and nuclear power, with abundant excess supply stored onsite, can be “energized” when other fuel sources either close down or are unable to meet demand.

These are not far-fetched scenarios. Severe cold in the northeast last winter — a January bomb cyclone — strained natural gas capacity and without coal as a backup, consumers would have been left in the dark. In addition, the very pipelines that gas plants rely on to meet demand are considered by security experts to be highly vulnerable to cyber-attacks and terrorism.

The Trump Administration recognizes the threat these conditions present to our nation. In order to maintain and foster the use of coal, while also ensuring a resilient power delivery system, the White House and Department of Energy may soon direct grid operators to purchase more power from plants that can keep 90 days or more of fuel onsite, while the potentially dire impact of coal and nuclear fleet retirements is studied in greater depth. This action deserves support from both the Congress and ratepayers nationwide.

The stakes could not be higher. Any interruption in power has the potential to inflict serious damage to the United States. The economic impact of a serious outage would be significant and devastating, measured in the tens of billions of dollars. And the National Security Council has expressed serious concern about what the loss of power would mean for our country’s ability to protect Americans in the face of a military attack or natural disaster.

Our power grid is at its most reliable and resilient when it is diverse —  utilizing coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewables in concert. Too many coal plants have been shuttered in recent years, putting that very diversity, reliability, and resilience at risk. Positive steps by President Trump and the Department of Energy, with assistance and support from Congress, can stop the very risky and continued closings of coal plants. This will give policymakers and grid operators alike more time to chart a path to the best and brightest future for the energy industry in the United States.

Hon. Christopher D. Coursen served as Majority Counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee & Chief Counsel of the Communications Subcommittee in the 1980s. He has been president and CEO of The Status Group for 32 years and he is currently senior counsel to Federal Advocates, Inc.

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