Analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) says that continued retirement of fossil fuel power plants could have an adverse impact on the nation’s ability to meet power generation needs during future severe weather events.

It says that during the winter storm that struck much of the eastern United States between Dec. 27, 2017, and Jan. 8, 2018 coal provided "a majority of the daily power generation required to meet the emergency."

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Peter Balash of NETL’s Energy Systems Analysis team, says the study showed that “coal was the most resilient form of power generation during the event and that removing coal from the energy mix would worsen threats to the electrical grid’s dependability during future severe weather events.”

The report warns against "overestimating the nation’s ability to respond to weather events if the current rate of coal plant retirements continues."

(Read the report.)

The report says that during the worst of the storm, Jan. 5–6, 2018, “U.S. electricity market experience demonstrated that without the resilience of coal plants — its ability to add 24-hour baseload capacity — the eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts.”

Credit: Energy Information AdministrationCredit: Energy Information AdministrationNETL’s Energy Markets Analysis team focused on six organized market areas administered by independent system operators (ISOs) that served regions affected by the winter weather, mostly in Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states.

The NETL study finds:

  • Across the six ISOs studied by NETL, coal provided 55 percent of the incremental daily generation needed, or 764,000 out of 1,213,000 gigawatt-hours per day (GWh/d).
  • Combined, fossil (coal, gas, and oil) and nuclear energy plants provided 89 percent of electricity across all the ISOs, with 69 percent coming from fossil energy plants.
  • For the largest of the ISOs, coal provided the most resilient form of generation due to available reserve capacity and on-site fuel availability, exceeding all other sources (providing three times the incremental generation from natural gas and 12 times that from nuclear units).
  • Nuclear energy, while vital to a stable grid, generally ran at maximum output, with negligible additional capacity to bring online during the event.
  • Natural gas, because of a surge in heating demand and pipeline congestion, did not add resilient capacity in three of the ISOs studied. However, units with dual-fuel capability (the ability to use different fuels together to produce power) allowed fuel oil to play an important role.
  • Available wind energy was 12 percent lower during the storm than for a typical winter day resulting in a need for dispatchable fossil generation to make up this generation in addition to its resiliency role in meeting the greater demand during the event.