After subsidy proposal fails, Rick Perry uses ‘bomb cyclone’ to promote coal generation

Critics view new report as another ploy by Trump administration to prop up coal.

New Department of Energy report promotes coal power. CREDIT:  J.Castro/Getty Images
New Department of Energy report promotes coal power. CREDIT: J.Castro/Getty Images

Energy Secretary Rick Perry is still trying to win converts to the Trump administration’s pro-coal campaign, this time by citing the performance of coal-fired power plants during a cold spell in late December and early January.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is touting a report produced by its own National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to argue that so much coal was used during the so-called bomb cyclone in the eastern United States that the nation must find a way to prevent coal plants from shutting down.

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This isn’t the first time DOE has used this particular cold snap in its pro-coal messaging. In January, at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, a DOE official cited the bomb cyclone as a reason to preserve coal-fired generation. Bruce Walker, an assistant secretary at the DOE, emphasized the importance of energy diversity to energy security, especially in times of freezing temperatures, The Hill reported Tuesday.

In the new report, NETL warned against overestimating the nation’s ability to respond to weather events if the current rate of coal plant retirements continues — coal plants are shutting down at a faster rate under President Trump than they did during President Obama’s first term. The study examined the bomb cyclone, which lasted from December 27, 2017 through January 8, 2018, and its impact on power system reliability and resilience.

During the bomb cyclone, coal provided 55 percent of the “incremental daily generation needed” in the affected regions, the report said. Incremental generation refers to the supply that is used to keep the system reliable on a peak-demand day — when extreme cold or hot weather, or another unusual event, pushes customer demand above the amount of power used on a typical day.

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According to the Sierra Club, though, there’s a problem with this analysis: these coal plants are incremental for a reason — they’re uneconomic, inflexible, and polluting.

Plants that operate more on a above-average-demand day than a typical day almost always are the most expensive generating facilities. “What they have is a report that shows coal is really expensive rather than anything that shows it’s more resilient or reliable, because it’s not,” Mark Kresowik, eastern region deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told ThinkProgress.

“You’ve got this supposedly independent lab putting out really shoddy, politicized analysis, and it’s deeply disturbing from a grid reliability and consumer cost perspective,” he said Wednesday.

Coal plants can’t compete in energy markets during normal conditions, “so they are relegated to the fringes of the grid and are only used for rare, extreme events,” the Sierra Club said in its own analysis of the NETL report. “This doesn’t make them more reliable or necessary, since they can be replaced by cheaper, cleaner energy resources as part of the grid planning process,” the environmental group explained.

The PJM Interconnection, the grid operator responsible for delivering most of the electricity to states affected by the cold spell, has a significant surplus of excess capacity. PJM’s own reports show no concerns with additional coal retirements in the multi-state region, the Sierra Club noted.

Kresowik described the NETL report as the “politicization” of a national laboratory, because, as he argues, it makes statements about coal generation that are inaccurate. “I’ve never seen a report like this from a national lab,” according to Kresowik.

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The report provides readers with a measure of which types of generating sources are more expensive on high-demand days; it does not offer a measure of resilience or reliability, he said.

As part of the debate over maintaining a reliable electric grid, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has proposed that resilience be defined as “the ability to withstand and reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events, which includes the capability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from such an event.”

Last fall, Perry sent a proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that, if approved, would have given a massive bailout to the coal and nuclear industries. However, the agency unanimously rejected the plan, delivering a major blow to the Trump administration’s effort to boost coal and slow the growth of solar and wind power.

To make the case for the plan, Perry at the time fabricated an economic threat to U.S. grid reliability from cheap renewables and then proposed a rule to account for the supposedly undervalued reliability benefit of coal and nuclear power. That meant Perry also had to ignore his own grid study, released earlier in 2017, which had made clear renewables were not a threat to power reliability.

Robbie Orvis, director of energy policy design at Energy Innovation, described the new NETL report as a “waste of time.”

“All it confirms is that higher-cost resources are used when demand is high, which is obvious,” Orvis wrote Tuesday in a tweet. Energy Innovation is a San Francisco-based energy and environmental research firm.

DOE’s promotion of the report comes on the heels of a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) that found coal power plants are becoming too expensive to operate compared to natural gas and renewable energy. “Half of U.S. coal capacity ran with net losses last year,” said BNEF, noting that “operating expenses exceeded revenue.”

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While coal power was designed to be used as 24-7 baseload, “in New England coal has devolved into backup capacity,” the BNEF report noted.

In a statement accompanying the DOE report, Peter Balash of NETL’s Energy Systems Analysis team said the new analysis shows “coal was the most resilient form of power generation during the event and that removing coal from the energy mix would worsen threats to the electrical grid’s dependability during future severe weather events.”

The NETL report also tried to tie the uneconomic coal and nuclear plants to grid resiliency.

But coal plants were more than 30 percent of the forced outages during this winter’s extreme temperatures, performing “just as poorly relative to other types of generation as they have during previous extreme weather events,” the Sierra Club explained, citing PJM’s own analysis of the grid’s performance during the cold snap.

Perry’s assessment of the two-week cold snap “is as biased toward the coal and nuclear industries” as his proposal to subsidize the two industries that was ultimately rejected by FERC, the environmental group said.