Coal crucial during ‘bomb cyclone’ — DOE study

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Department of Energy publicized a new report today bolstering a claim it has made regularly during the Trump administration: The electric grid needs coal plants in order to keep the lights on during extreme weather.

The analysis by the National Energy Technology Laboratory examined power generation in the eastern United States during the “bomb cyclone,” an extreme weather event in late December and early January that caused freezing temperatures and high electricity demand.

The study, which spanned six regional grid operators, found that coal provided 55 percent of the incremental daily generation needed, and that fossil energy plants including coal, gas and oil furnished 69 percent.

During the worst of the weather event, on Jan. 5 and 6, “without the resilience of coal plants … the eastern U.S. would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts,” according to the report.

Peter Balash, one of its authors, said that “coal was the most resilient form of power generation during the event and … removing coal from the energy mix would worsen threats to the electrical grid’s dependability during future severe weather events.”

U.S. power companies are planning to retire nearly 12 gigawatts of coal capacity this year, which is around 4 percent of the American coal fleet (Climatewire, March 15).

The study supports claims made by the coal industry, which has argued that the government should give financial support to coal plants because of their contributions to grid reliability and resilience.

That argument was central to a contentious proposal from DOE last year to change electricity market rules in some regions to compensate coal and nuclear plants. The plan was ultimately rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which found that there was no imminent resilience crisis.

A further study of the issue is ongoing at FERC, with grid operators recently reporting back to the agency on resilience in their regions (Energywire, March 12).

Both renewable advocates and, in some cases, regulators and grid operators have sought to rebut the claim that propping up coal plants is necessary to ensure grid resilience.

PJM Interconnection, which oversees the grid in 13 Eastern states and Washington, D.C., weathered the bomb cyclone with no problems, despite a trend in recent years of growing reliance on natural gas and renewables, and a decreased imprint for coal (Energywire, Jan. 9).

The grid operator released a report last year saying that “operational reliability can be maintained even if natural gas-fired resources replaced all coal-fired and nuclear generation resources.”

Greg Wetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, told E&E News in January that renewables have been a savior in the case of real resilience problems, pointing to wind energy’s overperformance during the famed polar vortex in 2014.

“I don’t see how you could possibly say that in cold weather circumstances, there’s any data that suggest that coal is coming to the rescue,” he said.