Editorial: Energy Department surprises Rick Perry with a reassuring study of power grid. Oops

Source: By Editorial Board, St. Louis Post-Dispatch • Posted: Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Back in April, Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered up a study of the reliability of the nation’s electrical power grid. The coal and nuclear power industries had been arguing that the system faced challenges that required special breaks for their energy sectors.

President Donald Trump keeps looking for reasons to pump taxpayer resources into reviving the coal industry. This study undermines his case.

The study was released Thursday, and it found the energy grid is in pretty good shape. There’s room for modest investment in coal-fired plants, but little need for an all-out effort. Wind and solar power are playing an important role on the grid. Cheap natural gas, not government regulation, is primarily responsible for the closing of coal-fired plants. A few breaks on coal and nuclear regulations might be in order, but nothing dramatic.

The study addressed the so-called baseload power supply, electricity produced 24 hours a day by nuclear stations and gas- and coal-fired generators. Bulk power reliability “is adequate today despite the retirement of 11 percent of the generating capacity available in 2002,” the study found. It added that “overall, at the end of 2016, the system had more dispatchable capacity capable of operating at high utilization rates than it did in 2002.”

The coal and nuclear industries have been arguing that they need better compensation for the reliability of their energy contribution. They say that market subsidies for less reliable “variable sources” like wind and solar are cutting into their profits and contributing to plant closures.

Last week, during his meandering, 77-minute speech in Phoenix, Trump boasted, “We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal, and it’s just been announced that a second, brand-new coal mine, where they’re going to take out clean coal — meaning, they’re taking out coal, they’re going to clean it — is opening in the state of Pennsylvania.”

The oxymoronic term “clean coal” refers to efforts to capture carbon dioxide emitted from burning coal and store it underground. Early efforts have been technically daunting and prohibitively expensive.

Trump also has ordered a complete review of problems facing the nuclear power industry, which accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. electrical supply. New plants are extraordinarily expensive, and older plants are closing. Illinois is among the states subsidizing aging nuclear plants just to preserve jobs.

The grid reliability study did recommend that federal agencies expedite permits for hydroelectric, coal and nuclear plants. The Environmental Protection Agency already has moved to cut regulations for new coal-fired plants, but even so, market forces make such investments dicey. Natural gas continues to be cheap, alternative sources like wind and solar are cheap, clean and growing and appliances are more energy-efficient, meaning energy use is down.

These are good things. Trump’s Energy Department has now acknowledged that. The president should, too.