- - Thursday, February 18, 2021

Only in a crisis do most Americans pay attention to the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid. But as millions suffer through blackouts in frigid temperatures from Texas to the Dakotas, this reliability crisis has come at an incredibly consequential fork in the energy road.

The electricity grid is in transition away from on-demand baseload fossil fuels to greater reliance on weather-dependent renewable power. This transition must be managed thoughtfully and responsibly; rolling blackouts in California this summer and ongoing uncontrolled blackouts on the Texas grid tell us it isn’t.

In recent years, the dispatchable fuel diversity of the grid — the on-demand balance provided by natural gas, coal and nuclear power — has been eroded by greater reliance on heavily subsidized wind and solar energy. The loss of much of the nation’s coal capacity, in particular, has introduced a new vulnerability to the grid we are only beginning to appreciate.

Coal plants keep weeks, often months, of fuel on site. But as coal capacity has been pushed aside, that fuel security has been replaced with ever-greater reliance on just-in-time fuel delivery through an over-stretched pipeline network or the whims of the weather. Early indications from Texas suggest that while frigid temperatures took their toll on all power sources, fuel availability may have been the decisive factor that pushed the grid into crisis.

Natural gas supplies are prioritized for home heating, meaning that with constrained pipeline capacity during this period of soaring energy demand, many natural gas power plants were left without fuel. In addition, Texas’ growing wind generation capacity has been all but a no-show. Just weeks before, under optimal conditions, wind generation in Texas met more than 40% of the state’s electricity needs. This week, it dropped to near zero.

A reliable grid cannot be built on fickle fuel sources that are unavailable when they are needed most. In fact, they introduce a false sense of security about available generating capacity while imbedding a new and incredibly dangerous vulnerability into our energy system.

Renewable proponents will tell you the intermittency of solar and wind power can be managed with energy storage or massive investments in new transmission infrastructure, but as of today, that’s not the case. Grid-scale energy storage remains in its infancy and building new, cross-country high-voltage transmission lines is an incredibly difficult, expensive and politically charged challenge. The cumbersome permitting for such projects can stretch a decade or more and often derails them altogether.

We now find ourselves in a dangerous energy no-man’s land where the energy sources that underpin energy reliability and affordability are being pushed aside before new solutions to manage the transition are available or in place. In Texas, more than 5,000 MW of desperately needed coal capacity has been retired in recent years, and several more plants that provided fuel security during this crisis are scheduled for early retirement or conversion to run on natural gas.

The nation’s remaining coal fleet, which continues to meet about a quarter of the nation’s electricity demand, is an essential piece of the puzzle to safely and responsibly get us to where we are going. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) grid, which stretches across 15 states up and down the center of the country, has by and large fared much better than Texas during this blast of polar weather. Better weatherization of its generating capacity is part of the story, but coal capacity has been the unsung hero.

While wind generation has faltered there too and natural gas supplies have also gone to meet home heating needs, coal capacity has picked up the slack, shouldering more than 50% of demand when it was needed most. For those who argue against the value of coal, this crisis highlights exactly why we need it.

We are in a moment that screams for caution, and yet state clean energy standards are growing more aggressive while the Biden administration has proposed eliminating natural gas and coal from the nation’s grid by 2035. Racing ahead to push aside the energy sources that are the foundation of the grid is a nationwide disaster in the making.

We can’t be cavalier about the challenges of pivoting away from baseload power. The consequences — blackouts in California and now Texas — come with real costs borne by real people. Grid mismanagement in Texas is literally costing lives. Clear-eyed understanding of the realities of our grid and the limits of today’s technologies should inform the energy road ahead, not arbitrary timelines and targets.

• Rich Nolan is president and CEO of the National Mining Association. 

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