REPORT: Coal Plants Facing Closure Prevented ‘Widespread Blackouts’ This Winter

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

Coal-fired power plants kept the lights on for millions of Americans during January’s bomb cyclone, according to an Energy Department report warning future plant retirements could imperil grid security.

Energy analysts at DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory found that coal power kept the lights on for millions of Americans during the bomb cyclone that pummeled the eastern U.S. from late December to early January.

NETL analysts found that coal plants made up most of the incremental power utilities relied on to keep electricity flowing during the cold snap. Nuclear and oil power plants played a big role, NETL found, but coal provided 55 percent of extra power across six grid operators.

“During the worst of the storm from January 5-6, 2018, actual U.S. electricity market experience demonstrated that without the resilience of coal- and fuel oil/dual-firing plants … the eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts,” NETL researchers reported.

NETL found that “without available capacity from partially utilized coal units, PJM would have experienced shortfalls leading to interconnect-wide blackouts.” PJM Interconnection is the largest independent system operator in the U.S., serving 65 million customers.

“In PJM, the value of fuel-based power generation resilience during this event was estimated at $3.5 billion,” NETL reported. Coal power capacity retirements could mean baseload power plants that kept the lights on this winter won’t be around during a future coal snap.

Coal plants have been prematurely retired en mass since 2012, due to a combination of federal and state policies and low-priced natural gas. Republicans and the coal industry blamed Environmental Protection Agency regulations for contributing to coal plant closures, which President Donald Trump seized upon during the 2016 campaign.

“The 30 GW of coal that ramped up to meet the surge in PJM load clearly includes the units most likely to retire due to insufficient market support, given those units were not running at baseload levels before the event,” NETL reported. As more of these units retire, the ability of the system to respond to extreme events with reliance, let alone economically, deteriorates.”

Grid “resilience” has become a major issue for the Trump administration. Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) last year to come up with a rule to financially compensate baseload power plants for reliability.

The basic concern is that competitive power markets don’t compensate power plants for their reliability. Instead, those systems favor low marginal cost power plants, generally natural gas and wind power.

Perry’s plan met intense opposition from the oil and gas industry and environmentalists, and FERC rejected Perry’s proposal in January. Despite the setback for Perry, FERC did initiate a project to define grid “resiliency” and grid operators have considered their own plans to keep coal and nuclear plants open.

NETL’s study is only the latest to highlight risks of continued power plant closures. ISO New England warned in January that continued coal, oil and nuclear plant retirements increased the risks of rolling blackouts during extreme weather.

New England has become increasingly reliant on natural gas and renewable energy, stemming from state and federal policies to shutter coal and oil power plants. However, pipeline capacity has not kept up with demand, causing supply issues and high prices.

ISO New England president Gordan van Welie said “coal and oil power plants rarely run most of the year, but they are still needed during extreme weather events. Nuclear power is also a key contributor.”

Two of the region’s four nuclear plants are set to retire in the coming years, along with coal and oil plants. More wind and solar power won’t be enough to support the grid during cold snaps, van Welie warned.

New England was so desperate for natural gas to keep the heat on it took two shipments containing liquefied natural gas from Russia.

NETL’s report says more reliable energy will need to be put onto the grid to replace retiring coal and nuclear power plants. More natural gas plants would need to be built with “equally sufficient pipeline capacity” and wind and solar power would need battery storage, NETL reported.

“At least three times as much wind is necessary to replace a coal plant during cold weather months, but wind plants cannot be ‘ramped up’ or dispatched by system operators in response to demand increases,” NETL reported.

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