Reliability Something to Be Thankful For
Editor’s note: This article was originally published to the ACC’s online magazine website (www.acclive.com) in December, 2014. It has been moved to the Coalblog as part of our redesign of our online publications.
By Lance Brown, PACE
It is doubtful that many U.S. electricity customers gave thanks for the reliability of their power this Turkey Day. Let’s be honest – none of them probably did. That’s because, with the exception of extreme weather events, power supplied by American utilities almost never goes out. Unfortunately, that’s not the case everywhere.
A recent news story from The Telegraph reports that “Scottish households could face dimmed lights and flickering TV sets in three years’ time because UK authorities are putting Scotland’s last coal-fired power plant at risk of closure.” ScottishPower’s Longannet power station, the utility’s last operating coal-fired power plant, today supplies electricity for two million homes and is the last thing keeping Scotland’s light bulbs from dimming. Without the Longannet plant, analysts say ScottishPower customers could face the risk of blackouts.
The UK’s energy policy scheme is to blame for the dilemma. Escalating green taxes and punitive policies have placed the profitability of the coal-fired power plant in jeopardy. Soon, if the Longannet plant closes, there will be just one fossil-fuel power plant in all of Scotland, creating a huge challenge of balancing supply with demand without power sources that can be adjusted at a moment’s notice.
In some ways, Scotland’s dilemma is a microcosm of what American utilities could face in just a few short years. Federal energy policies are already raising the cost of operating coal-fired power, causing dozens of units nationwide to shut down or convert to other fuel sources. Consider, for example, that under the preferred vision of EPA’s new carbon dioxide mandate, not a single coal-fired power plant will operate in the State of Mississippi. The future toward which we are headed is one of significant movement toward natural gas. A recent study, in fact, speculates that coal could represent as little as 22% of American power generation by the year 2020, about half of its market share of our power today.
The consequences of such a shift are not minor. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is already taking note, altering the way it assesses grid reliability to account for the loss of traditional power sources like coal and the addition of more intermittent sources such as solar and wind power. NERC predicts that the U.S. will lose massive amounts of generation resources in the next ten years, some of which will be replaced with sources like solar and wind power and some of which will not be replaced at all. NERC explains that these new generation sources present reliability problems because they cannot be easily ramped up or down to meet shifting demand. In other words, it might be just a few short years before the chandelier above the Thanksgiving table is flickering in our country, too.
The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the body tasked with ensuring the reliability of the power grid, has already granted one petition giving a power plant more time to comply with new federal regulations. That plant, a coal-fired generating station near Kansas City, is key to maintaining power reliability in its region. More petitions are expected to follow, especially as the EPA’s carbon dioxide mandate threatens the shutdown of even more traditional power sources. The FERC extension doesn’t provide a great deal of breathing room – six months in the case of the Kansas City plant – but it could be enough time for policy makers to come to their senses and alter current rules.
It’s easy to take reliable power for granted. It is only when the lights begin to dim and television sets begin to flicker, as they might soon do in Scotland, that the consequences of irresponsible energy policy become clear. Thankfully, U.S. policy makers still have time to preserve the robust and nearly perfectly-dependable system that makes electrical reliability just an afterthought for most American families. It only requires a realization that environmental agendas must be balanced carefully with engineering realities and that the electrons that power American homes and businesses must come largely from sources we can control. It doesn’t take the brightest bulb to recognize those realities, just leadership with a clear and unwavering focus on protecting the power grid that makes America great.
Lance Brown is executive director of the Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy / PACE (www.energyfairness.org). This article was originally published at http://energyfairness.org/2014/11/reliability-something-thankful/.
Photo: Victor Denovan/Shutterstock