Terry Jarrett

GUEST COMMENTARY: Texas grid failure shows need for reliable electricity

Right now, the United States is suffering some brutally cold weather. Northern states like North Dakota and Minnesota have seen night-time temperatures dropping below zero degrees Fahrenheit. And Duluth is currently chasing a record for the coldest sustained weather, set way back in 1912. These Arctic conditions are extremely challenging, and Americans are turning up their thermostats to stay warm. As a result, the current “Polar Vortex” is pushing America’s power grid to the limit. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, which oversees power transmission in 15 central states, reports that coal is currently generating more than half of its overall electricity. In fact, a Feb. 15 snapshot of MISO’s grid showed coal producing roughly 45,000 megawatts of electricity, with natural gas coming in second at 25,000 megawatts. Essentially, during the current Arctic blast, coal is proving to be the sturdiest fuel for carrying the load. MISO data shows just how lopsided this electricity portfolio is. On Feb. 15, MISO’s customers were drawing roughly 88,000 megawatts of electricity. Coal’s 45,000 megawatts covered more than half of this demand. In comparison, wind and solar power hardly contributed. Solar panels delivered roughly 287 megawatts, and wind turbines topped out at around 4,900 megawatts. That means these much-vaunted renewable energy systems produced only around 5 percent of the electricity needed across 15 states. MISO has now posted alerts warning of extreme weather conditions and potential “fuel restrictions.” But all of this pales in comparison to Texas’s current troubles. Stunningly cold weather — including sub-zero temperatures — have led to a massive spike in electricity demand across the state. However, much of the Texas power grid now relies on wind turbines. And in the current Arctic blast, half of the state’s wind turbines have frozen, taking at least 12,000 megawatts of power offline. Even worse, home heating needs have drained the state’s natural gas capacity, leaving some gas-fired plants without fuel. As a result, Texas is now seeing blackouts. On Feb. 15, up to 2.5 million Texans were without electricity. This is the inevitable result of policies that favor intermittent wind generation while pushing aside the fuel-security and reliability provided by coal plants. Worryingly, Texas’s shift to wind-generated power is being replicated across the nation. President Biden hopes to eliminate all coal and natural gas plants from the U.S. power grid by 2035. This is deeply concerning if one tries to imagine a Polar Vortex in 15 years when none of the current coal plants are still available to do the heavy emergency lifting. As Texas scrambles to pull together needed power, it’s clear that baseload power must remain a key component of reliable electricity generation. The United States should continue to pursue an “all-of-the-above” fuel mix. Wind and solar can certainly contribute to the nation’s power grid. But smart future planning dictates that coal, natural gas and nuclear power will still be needed to help with the heavy lifting during uncooperative weather. Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the board of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.

COMMENTARY: Fixing the Clean Power Plan is a sensible first step

Washington loves controversy. And critics are undoubtedly clucking right now about the Trump administration’s plan to replace the Clean Power Plan, or CPP, with a modified effort. But the administration deserves credit for updating the plan, rather than scrapping it entirely. For starters, the CPP envisioned by President Obama represented a massive overreach of the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. Instead of addressing individual power plants, the Obama administration simply mandated wholesale changes to large swaths of America’s power grid. The Supreme Court found this problematic, though, and issued an unprecedented stay of the rule while a lower court was reviewing it. It wasn’t just the EPA’s intrusion into the way individual states generate electricity, however. There was also the incredibly high price tag. According to a study by Energy Ventures Analysis, the CPP would have forced the closure of enough generating capacity to power 24 million homes. This would have cost consumers an estimated $214 billion in additional electricity costs between 2022 and 2030, plus $64 billion for replacement infrastructure. Such a massive expense prompted 27 states to challenge the rule, and a bipartisan majority of Congress to formally state their disapproval. What the Trump administration is now attempting with its Affordable Clean Energy, or ACE, rule is to focus on improvements for existing plants. This is a far more lawful approach, and it means the EPA will respect both the boundaries established under the Clean Air Act and the ability of individual states to securely generate electricity. Essentially, the new rule means the administration wants to innovate and upgrade existing facilities, rather than scrap them. There’s precedent for this, since extensive investments in environmental controls for America’s coal fleet have already reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter by 92 percent per kilowatt-hour since 1970. Utilities have invested more than $127 billion in emissions technologies through 2018, and are also expected to spend an additional $5 billion through 2020. The CPP was a blunt hammer, and it aimed to rapidly eliminate coal-fired power in the U.S. But shutting down key parts of the nation’s power grid could have reduced the reliability and affordability of America’s electricity mix. A recent EVA study found that replacing just three of the coal plants facing premature retirement could cost consumers 15 times more than providing support to keep them operating. Coal currently generates 32 percent of the nation’s power supply. It’s part of a long-term effort to maintain a balanced energy mix. The CPP overreached, in that it would have imposed massive costs on U.S. consumers. But it offered little gain in return. A fully implemented CPP would have yielded only a theoretical 0.018 degrees Celsius reduction in global temperatures by 2100, and reduced power plants CO2 emissions by less than 1 percent. Yes, the Trump administration has waded into a complex and controversial issue. But they’ve taken a prudent approach to help states generate electricity safely, reliably, and affordably. More can be done to scale up up wind and solar power, for example. But that should be encouraged alongside advances in coal technologies that can further improve safety while also providing reliable electricity every day. ^ Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.
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