According to Bloomberg, the coal industry is using the blackouts during the polar vortex to argue for a new lease on life.
The wintry weather at the start of this year drove up demand for heat and power, so electricity prices jumped to more than 10 times last year’s averages in some parts of the country. As a result, about 800,000 Americans suffered through blackouts in early February alone. Energy companies and utilities are using that threat to argue that coal should stay in the country’s energy mix.
“I’ve been advocating fuel diversity so you don’t get overly dependent on any one particular fuel source,” Thomas Kuhn, president of the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute, told Bloomberg. “On a regional basis we still want to keep that in mind.”
“As I look at the portfolio we operate, which is a combination of coal and gas and nuclear and pump storage and hydro, we needed every bit of it,” added Lynn Good, the CEO of Duke Energy.
The bottleneck appears to be the burgeoning natural gas industry, which now provides 50 percent of the electricity just in New England. The polar vortex set demand records for at least one major natural gas company in the nation. But the industry doesn’t quite have the infrastructure yet to get its fuel to plants with the same responsiveness and flexibility the coal industry has, with its longer history and use of rail. It’s also possible for the liquids that come up in natural gas drilling to freeze in unusually cold weather and clog the wellhead, which chokes off production.
The industry itself argues it just needs more pipelines to address these problems. “The challenge, especially in the Northeast, is the lack of gas pipeline infrastructure that would reliably supply new generation facilities with gas,” Ed Hirs, a lecturer on energy economics at the University of Houston, told Bloomberg.
Right now about 60 gigawatts of coal — 6 percent of the country’s total capacity to generate electricity — is anticipated to close by the end of this decade, thanks to a combination of new federal regulations and a lack of market competitiveness. So utilities and coal interests are using natural gas’ recent difficulties to push back against that fate: “Coal’s not going away,” Mike Loreman, head of U.S. coal origination at Mercuria Energy Trading SA, said. “This winter has shown the potential for coal to flex.”
Unfortunately, this would mean keeping around many coal plants that are already well past their designed lifespan. The older those plants are, the less efficient they are, and the dirtier they are in terms of both carbon emissions and other pollutants that threaten human health.
Ironically, the coal industry’s argument applies even better to renewables. Power sources like solar, wind, and storage plug directly into the existing electrical infrastructure — and unlike oil, natural gas, or coal, they don’t require transporting any physical fuel. States with large amounts of wind power avoided blackouts during the polar vortex, because the weather drove up wind energy production even as it put more strain on the grid. And solar power in Australia has taken the edge off the strain heat waves are placing on that country’s electrical infrastructure.