Grid didn’t need coal during winter storm — FERC chief

Source: Adam Aton, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 25, 2018

Coal-friendly lawmakers are still trying to figure out how to talk about the fuel’s diminished role during this year’s winter bomb cyclone.

The country’s top grid officials told senators yesterday that the grid held up well to the winter storm. New England, trying to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, shouldered the worst of the weather with little help from coal-fired plants — and a top regulator appointed by President Trump suggested that the rest of the grid could have operated without coal, too, even if the fuel helped keep some energy prices down.

Coal and nuclear power generators could once count on extreme winter weather to burnish their reputations. The polar vortex of 2014 left such a blistering legacy that it formed a central pillar in Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s failed proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants.

This year, New England looked to natural gas and oil-fired plants instead — leading to some of the highest spot prices in the world (Climatewire, Jan. 11). That economic shift pulled more coal plants online, but they played a smaller role in the grid’s reliability than in 2014.

Coal-state senators insisted the fuel continues to deserve a role.

“For those people who believe that we can do without fossil [fuels] completely, I want us all to be completely honest and accurate with them: We can’t. Maybe that day will come in the future; it’s not here,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said, waving his hand in dismissal.

To illustrate his point, Manchin turned to Kevin McIntyre, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Manchin asked him what the country would have done without coal-fired plants backing up the grid during the harsh winter storms.

Actually, McIntyre said, the grid could have functioned without coal.

“We wouldn’t have seen any widespread outages absent coal,” he said. “That said, coal was a key contributor. It wasn’t exempt from operational problems — there were some issues, as I understand it, with frozen coal piles in certain sites and so on. But it was, no question, a key contributor.”

Coal accounted for 45,000 megawatts — more than 40 percent of the electricity delivered — on the PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organizer responsible for more than 50 million people’s electricity from North Carolina to Illinois, said its president and CEO, Andrew Ott.

“We could not have served customers without the coal-fired resources; that’s the reality,” he said.

On the other hand, PJM has also retired more than 20,000 MW of coal-fired capacity, and Ott said there is more that could go.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) also pointed out that in New England, coal generated 7 percent of the electricity even though it accounted for less than 3 percent of the installed capacity.

“Isn’t it fair to conclude that when your region needed power the most, it was the reliable coal and nuclear power plants that were necessary to keep the lights on?” he said.

The chief of New England’s grid said that’s not the future; there are two coal-fired plants left on the system, and one of them will retire soon.

“The issue for us in New England is that we are definitely transitioning to a different power system as the region strives to decarbonize. By definition, we have to reduce the amount of fossil fuel burned in the region,” said Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of ISO New England.

Doing that reliably is the issue, he said, adding that the region is moving “very close to the edge.”

Some lawmakers yesterday pointed to the gas pricing surge as evidence of the need for more natural gas pipelines.

One reason PJM burned so much coal is that the price of gas rose above it, Ott said. And Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) pointed out that New England’s supply shortfall led it to import liquefied natural gas from Russia, according to the Financial Times, even as the United States is shipping domestically produced LNG to Europe.

“If we’re looking at an overall system here — from cost, from emissions and all kind of things — it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to me,” she said.