Coal push may be disaster insurance the grid doesn’t need – by Tim Loh and Mark Chediak(Washington Post – August 25, 2017)

‘The U.S. ought not to mortgage itself up to the hilt by making rash decisions that could very well harm the economy of the U.S. in 10 years’

If all hell breaks loose on the U.S. power grid — a terrorist blows up a key natural gas pipeline, say, in the midst of a frigid winter — how will Americans keep the lights on?

The answer is coal, according to a growing collection of the industry’s leaders and lobbyists. Their pitch conveys an image of a nation plunged into darkness as solar farms, wind turbines and plants fueled by gas fail to make up for the loss of coal-fired generation. Though it’s a view at least partly supported by a Department of Energy study released late Wednesday, the reality isn’t so dire.

Coal companies’ pleas for protection come as President Donald Trump vows to make good on campaign promises to support an industry hit by low-cost renewable energy and abundant gas from shale reservoirs. Energy Secretary Rick Perry called in April for his department to investigate whether rising supplies of wind and solar energy are threatening the grid’s reliability. The resulting report recommends less-stringent environmental rules for coal plants, changes in electricity trading and easier permitting for coal, nuclear and hydropower.

Coal plants “play an important role,” said David Sandalow, inaugural fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and a former Energy Department official. “But it would be costly in many ways to get locked into old notions of operating the grid when new technologies are out there.”

Grid operators have already been coping with a decline in power from coal-fired plants — most of which are designed to operate around the clock to meet electricity demand — without any major mishaps. Since 2005, 14 percent of America’s coal-burning capacity has closed, and 5 percent of the remaining 294 gigawatts is scheduled to shut, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In May, coal generated just 29 percent of America’s electricity, about half the share it had when George W. Bush was president.

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