Jarrett: Coal enters a new era in 2019

Terry Jarrett
Special to Energy
Terry Jarrett

For those who follow energy policy in the United States, these are intriguing times. A number of changes are underway, with natural gas occupying a newfound prominence in electricity generation. Some older coal plants are being retired. And more utilities are exploring wind and solar even as nuclear power recedes from consideration.

The pace of change is impressive, given the complexities of maintaining sufficient electricity for a nation of 325 million people. The challenge will be to find a cohesive balance across this shifting landscape.

California and nine other states are already pursuing new quotas for electric vehicles. Those mandates alone could increase electricity demand across the nation. Can America continue to churn out sufficient baseload power each day?

And what role will coal play?

Undoubtedly, coal has lost market share in recent years. A hefty spate of regulations over the past decade saw coal plants close in record numbers. And more than 62,000 coal miners losing their jobs between 2011 and 2016.

However, America’s coal fleet has emerged leaner than before. In 2017, coal supplied 30 percent of U.S. electricity, compared with 32 percent from natural gas. Policymakers must now consider how much more coal-fired power can realistically be retired before the loss of baseload power threatens the reliability of America’s electric grid. This matters, since wind and solar power only work when the wind blows and the sun shines. And there are also consequences for an over-reliance on natural gas.

With natural gas, utilities are still beholden to a vast network of pipelines that deliver just-on-time fuel supplies. Regional grid operator ISO New England has already cautioned about fuel uncertainty. Natural gas is prioritized for home heating, and ISO says that high heating demand during unpredictable winter cold snaps could mean “very little to no pipeline capacity for electric generators.

ISO-NE explains that such fuel constraints could “sideline thousands of megawatts of natural-gas-fired generation.” When that happens, “system operators turn to power plants with stored fuel — coal, oil, or nuclear — to meet demand.”

Last winter Boston was forced to import Russian liquified natural gas when the region’s pipeline network struggled to meet demand.

Natural gas has also seen price spikes in recent months due to increased demand and lower domestic storage. And America’s exports of natural gas are projected to triple by the end of 2019.

The Trump administration has been criticized for bolstering America’s coal industry. But coal mining employment has stabilized since President Trump took office, and gained roughly 3,000 jobs.

It’s an interesting turn of events, and it suggests that the nation’s coal sector is well-positioned to keep supplying a bedrock portion of the electricity generation that Americans need each day. It also confirms the wisdom of a diverse energy portfolio that can supply ongoing power in every season.

Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission. He contributes regularly to