As temperatures plunged during the 12-day cold snap that hit just after Christmas, many people across the East Coast reached for their thermostats, which increased demand for electricity.
A new federal report finds that without coal-fired electricity, the eastern United States would have experienced blackouts during the so-called “Bomb Cyclone” winter storm earlier this year.
The Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory said fossil fuels — coal, natural gas or oil — accounted for most of the energy burned during the the Bomb Cyclone.
But coal really stepped up, providing 55 percent of capacity. The report, which examined how six grid operators fared during the storm, found fuel oil was also crucial for meeting surging energy demand, especially in the northeast.
While natural gas plants met some of the additional energy needs, the analysis found the surge in demand drove prices up, in some cases nearly 700 percent.
Peter Balash, one of the report’s authors, said in a press release that coal was the most resilient form of power generation during the event and, “removing coal from the energy mix would worsen threats to the electrical grid’s dependability during future severe weather events.”
While it’s important to focus on coal plant closures and the impact the loss of that capacity may have on the grid in the case of a major storm, NETL’s new study skirts the bigger picture, said Eric Hittinger, an associate professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who specializes in grid research.
He said the report shows the amount of electricity that can be guaranteed within the system, also called firm generation, is really crucial for keeping the lights on when there is a big storm. Power produced by coal plants is one example of firm generation, but so is nuclear power, and electricity produced by natural gas and hydroelectric. NETL’s report, he said, really only focuses on coal.
“It’s the electricity system as a whole that keeps the lights on,” Hittinger said. “We can do without any single plant on the system, but we can’t do without a lot of them. To hang your hat on any one of them as the critical component is maybe a little bit distracting from the general issue of having enough capacity.”
He added that coal-fired plants are currently facing challenging economic and market conditions forcing them to close, so it makes sense to examine that loss closely. However, additional natural gas capacity and battery storage, when it drops in price, could replace the capacity currently tied up with coal plants.
Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, said if the world is going to transition away from fossil fuels, as it must to keep the most drastic impacts of climate change at bay, the energy sector must transition away from fossil fuels. He said the study highlights the technology gap that currently exists to be able to make that transition while ensuring the light’s don’t go out during severe weather events.
“Some people, perhaps people in the Trump administration, might conclude how important coal, oil and gas is and we really need to develop our fossil fuel capabilities and increase fossil fuel capacity,” Caldeira said. “When I see these numbers I say ‘oh man, we really need to work hard on our energy technology research and development efforts to come up with technologies that can follow the variation in electricity demand without dumping waste carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.’”
The Department of Energy previously expressed concerns about the grid’s resilience as electric utility companies retire more coal plants in favor of cleaner natural gas. The agency last year proposed a rule that would have required coal and nuclear plants to keep three months of fuels onsite. The agency said the change was necessary in order to ensure the grid could handle future disruptions.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in January rejected the proposal.