King Coal Boasts About Keeping Us Warm While Taking a Jab at Natural Gas

NEW EAGLE, PA - SEPTEMBER 24: A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, on September 24, 2013 in New Eagle, Pennsylvania. The plant, owned by FirstEnergy, will be one of two plants in the region to be shut down, affecting 380 employees. The Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Obama administration have been taking major steps to get coal-fired power plants into compliance with clean air regulations. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Feb. 12, 2014, 2:45 p.m.

Coal back­ers are seiz­ing on elec­tri­city price in­creases spurred by winter weath­er to make the case that power pro­viders are lean­ing too heav­ily on nat­ur­al gas.

The east­ern U.S. ex­per­i­enced re­cord de­mand for elec­tri­city in Janu­ary as a res­ult of the po­lar vor­tex, a swirl­ing mass of arc­tic air that des­cen­ded from the north and caused re­cord-low tem­per­at­ures and heavy snow­fall. The fri­gid weath­er led to in­creased elec­tri­city de­mand and pushed up nat­ur­al-gas prices.

“The po­lar vor­tex demon­strated the very real prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with over­de­pend­ence on nat­ur­al gas in our power sys­tem, res­ult­ing in sig­ni­fic­ant price spikes for con­sumers,” said Laura Shee­han, a spokes­wo­man for the Amer­ic­an Co­ali­tion for Clean Coal Elec­tri­city.

AC­CCE, which lob­bies for the coal in­dustry, and the Elec­tric Re­li­ab­il­ity Co­ordin­at­ing Coun­cil, an or­gan­iz­a­tion of util­it­ies, is­sued sep­ar­ate re­ports this month paint­ing coal as the power sec­tor’s pinch hit­ter in the midst of this winter’s cold snap.

Ac­cord­ing to AC­CCE’s re­port, nearly 90 per­cent of coal-fired power units owned by util­ity gi­ant Amer­ic­an Elec­tric Power and slated to be re­tired next year were up and run­ning dur­ing the cold weath­er. “Ana­lysts have found that coal re­tire­ments and in­creased re­li­ance by the power sec­tor on nat­ur­al gas were linked to price spikes and re­li­ab­il­ity is­sues,” it said.

The ER­CC re­port sim­il­arly em­phas­ized the need for a di­verse en­ergy sec­tor and warned that En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency reg­u­la­tions to lim­it car­bon emis­sions from new and ex­ist­ing power plants could choke do­mest­ic power gen­er­a­tion.

EPA re­leased a draft pro­pos­al to curb car­bon emis­sions from fu­ture plants in Septem­ber; rules to con­trol emis­sions from ex­ist­ing plants are still be­ing de­veloped.

“We is­sued this pa­per to re­mind poli­cy­makers and those in the act­iv­ist com­munity that if you take the bal­ance out of the elec­tri­city sys­tem by us­ing the power of gov­ern­ment fi­at to al­low one fuel source to dom­in­ate, then the risk is that you cre­ate a sys­tem that is not re­li­able and not af­ford­able,” said Scott Segal, dir­ect­or of the ER­CC.

The re­cent re­li­ance on coal was noted this week by Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources rank­ing mem­ber Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in an ad­dress to the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Reg­u­lat­ory Util­ity Com­mis­sion­ers.

“What we learned from the po­lar vor­tex is that for one key sys­tem, 89 per­cent of the coal ca­pa­city that is slated for re­tire­ment next year be­cause of an EPA rule was called upon to meet rising de­mand,” said Murkowski, a vo­cal crit­ic of the EPA reg­u­la­tions. “That raises a very ser­i­ous ques­tion — what hap­pens when that ca­pa­city is gone?”

Coal and nat­ur­al gas have had a some­what un­easy re­la­tion­ship over the course of the past dec­ade. Coal re­mains the dom­in­ant source of elec­tric gen­er­at­ing power in the U.S., but it is un­ques­tion­ably un­der threat. This is largely be­cause a do­mest­ic oil and nat­ur­al-gas boom fueled by hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing has pushed gas prices down­ward and made it hard for coal to com­pete.

Ten­sions between the two fuel sources flared a few years back when the CEO of Ches­apeake En­ergy, the second-largest pro­du­cer of nat­ur­al gas in the U.S., made a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to the Si­erra Club’s Bey­ond Coal Cam­paign.

Mary Durbin, the pres­id­ent of Amer­ica’s Nat­ur­al Gas Al­li­ance, a trade group for do­mest­ic nat­ur­al-gas pro­du­cers, down­played the sug­ges­tion of grow­ing ten­sion between the coal in­dustry and nat­ur­al-gas de­velopers.

“Do we need to have a ra­tion­al policy in place to make sure we have a di­verse fuel mix? Sure,” Durbin said. “But I don’t think we have a prob­lem with be­ing over­re­li­ant on nat­ur­al gas at this point. This isn’t an either-or pro­pos­i­tion. I think both coal and nat­ur­al gas are go­ing to con­tin­ue to be found­a­tion­al base-load power sources for our eco­nomy mov­ing for­ward.”

When asked wheth­er he be­lieves the en­ergy sec­tor is too re­li­ant on nat­ur­al gas, Segal was quick to shift the con­ver­sa­tion in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion. “I’d put it this way,” he said. “One of the strengths of the Amer­ic­an elec­tri­city sys­tem is its di­versity of fuel sources and gen­er­a­tion types.” Segal ad­ded: “The po­lar vor­tex shows we need every fuel source to play its part when the sys­tem is un­der stress.”

Shee­han agreed with Segal’s as­sess­ment. “We all be­ne­fit from hav­ing a di­verse fuel sup­ply and we don’t want there to be an over­re­li­ance on any one fuel, wheth­er that’s re­new­ables, nat­ur­al gas, or coal,” Shee­han said.

But she didn’t shy away from a dis­cus­sion of how the two power sources stack up. “In terms of gen­er­at­ing elec­tri­city, coal-based power has some gen­er­al ad­vant­ages over nat­ur­al gas that are mag­ni­fied un­der con­di­tions like the po­lar vor­tex. Nat­ur­al gas is a ‘just-in-time’ fuel, piped in as power plants use it — so power-line dis­rup­tions due to a drop in tem­per­at­ure or spike in de­mand im­pact gen­er­a­tion in real time. Coal, on the oth­er hand, is stock­piled at the plant and gen­er­ally not sub­ject to such dis­rup­tions,” she said.

Ben Geman contributed to this article.
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