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Opinion: Don’t mothball coal and nuclear power plants just yet

Even the most aggressive solar and wind programs, backed up by natural gas plants, cannot meet all U.S. electricity requirements

A smokestack from a Evergy’s Hawthorn coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the setting sun in Kansas City.
A smokestack from a Evergy’s Hawthorn coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the setting sun in Kansas City on Feb. 1, 2021. Despite the need for renewables, the United States still needs coal and nuclear power plants.
Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

The gap between world energy demand and available supply is growing and may become greater and disrupt global power capacity with unforeseen economic consequences.

That is why the specter of energy shortages and skyrocketing costs in an uncertain, pandemic era, with a coal crunch resulting in the shutdown of industries in China, exploding natural gas prices in Britain, and surging gasoline and electricity prices in the U.S. are all interrelated and require a clear strategy and recognized purpose to resolve.

If we focus on only a single environmental problem, we may unintentionally encourage a decline in energy production, which would spread across the country. With energy costs rising so rapidly in Europe and Asia, the last thing countries need are actions that makes costs rise even faster.

Yet, that is what is happening in energy production, where wind and solar provide electricity only intermittently, unlike fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. Despite rapid decline in costs of renewables, the share of renewables is actually expanding at a rate much slower than that of coal, oil or natural gas. Coal is still the dominant fuel globally for power generation, at over 40%. In contrast, solar and wind combined now account for only 7.3% of the world’s electricity.

Doubtless, technological advances in solar and wind — and the emergence of large-scale electricity storage on the grid — will make a difference in the years ahead. But this may not come soon enough, given the danger of obvious global warming and the desperate need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and quell severe weather changes.

It is reckless to assume that we can ignore building new electric power plants. We cannot sanction efficient nuclear and coal plants to be prematurely retired as is happening in the U.S.. Even the most aggressive solar and wind programs, backed up by natural gas plants, cannot meet all U.S. electricity requirements.

What is truly sobering about the new energy reality is the unpredictable global gas market, where exports of liquefied natural gas from the United States and the Middle East can’t meet growing demand for gas in Europe and Asia. Challenging issues need to be addressed, such as the impact of gas shortages on manufacturing, jobs and the global geopolitical order.

We need to increase our electricity generation capacity, but because of financial and regulatory pressure, electric utilities stopped building large new power plants in the U.S. four decades ago. Since demand for electricity has continued to rise, some areas of the U.S. are now facing power shortages. There have been blackouts in California and Texas, and many regions around the country face serious reliability problems.

This past summer, power systems from Maine to Arizona set an all-time record for electricity consumption. Fortunately, there was sufficient base-load generation to keep the lights on and air conditioners and dehumidifiers operating in homes and businesses. The reason was the excellent performance of nuclear power and fossil fuel plants in large parts of the country. The nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants operated around the clock, preventing electricity shortages.

We must also recognize coal’s important role for our electrical power grids. As summer began, coal generation in the PJM grid that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia, met a three-year high. Coal demand in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator grid rose 37%, and 42% in the Southwest Power Pool. As the hot weather extended into August, the PJM grid provided one-third of the generation. On the SPI grid, nearly half. And in MISO, which covers most of the Midwest, more than half.

It’s impossible to predict what the world economy will do in the future. But electric power will remain a driving force, largely because automakers have now made a major commitment to bringing electric vehicles into commercial production. Even when renewables are cost competitive and intermittency is solved through affordable storage, the fossil fuel system and nuclear power cannot be mothballed because of their vast scale.

If it seems difficult to envision many existing power plants remaining operational for decades, it seems impossible to imagine the world economy remaining healthy without them.

Gary Marlin Sandquist is professor emeritus at the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Utah.