Coal Power Plants Need to Be Shut Down, Now

Coal Power Plants Need to Be Shut Down, Now

We typically put little thought into how we get our energy. We only care that there is power to turn on our lights, charge our phones, and run our air conditioners. What’s behind the switchplate? Who cares as long as I can plug my charger into it?

Recently, the Department of Energy, headed by former Texas governor Rick Perry, put forth a study that delved into the inner workings of the United States electric grid. While it’s not surprising that the Department of Energy would conduct such a study, what is the surprising are the conclusions that the study arrived at, namely one particular line from Perry’s April 14 memo initiating the review: “Baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning electric grid.”

Putting aside the fact the Perry seemed to have reached a conclusion before the study was even undertaken, the premise is patently incorrect. I would like to amend the conclusion: baseload power is one path to a well-functioning electric grid, but not the only path.

Let me begin by giving a little background on energy generation in the United States. In the traditional model of energy production, there are three tiers of power plants. At the bottom is giant, sprawling “baseload” plants. These plants are typically large coal and nuclear power plants. They are designed to run constantly and cheaply. But they require a large amount of initial capital, are expensive to ramp up and ramp down, and are less nimble in meeting fluctuating energy needs. The next tier consists of “mid-merit” plants, which consist mostly of natural gas plants that can be quickly switched on if the load exceeds the capacity of baseload plants. At the very top are “peaker” plants. These plants are usually quick combustion engines and turbines that are quick to ramp up and down, but expensive to run.

Baseload plants, especially coal plants, have long been the backbone of the U.S. energy grid. They have been viewed as the constant in any equation dealing with energy generation. For most of the 20th century, they provided cheap, abundant energy. Natural gas and biofuels were seen as supplements to baseload plants. Wind and solar were viewed as disruptors to an already stable grid and a threatening force to baseload plants. 

This perspective makes sense, but only if you assume baseload plants to be necessary and untouchable.

In reality, the grid is changing. Solar and wind generation are becoming ever larger shares of the U.S. energy portfolio. With solar and wind (“variable renewable energies,” or VREs), consumers are becoming their own energy producers. This energy is clean, cheap, and a viable alternative to the power provided by utility companies. From the perspective of grid operators, VREs are not dispatchable, meaning that their use is not controlled by grid operators and power companies. Thus, they provide another variable affecting energy supply and demand.

As more and more VREs are adopted, the identity of the power grid will change. VREs will no longer be viewed as disruptors, threatening the stability of baseload plants. In reality, they will be a significant component that will need to be accommodated. The more VREs that are present on the grid, the greater the need for flexible resources to balance out the variability of these resources.

But coal power plants and other baseload power plants are not flexible. They are designed to run constantly, not ramp up or ramp down as demand fluctuates. Moreover, while VERs are slowly siphoning off demand from coal plants, cheap natural gas has done the most damage. While fossil fuel companies point to solar and wind for coal’s demise, it’s actually a family fight. So while the demand for constant baseload power decreases, it will become increasingly expensive to run those large-scale coal plants. Coal and nuclear baseload plants have been running less often, losing money and shutting down.

So what does this all mean? It means that we need to think about an electric grid without coal plants. What would that look like? Without coal plants, the grid would be much smaller. More modular. Many more inputs and outputs. Coordinated demand response. Well-planned and integrated energy networks instead of endless miles of wires radiating from one source. Neighborhood grids instead of city grids. Large, expensive coal plants replaced with cheaper, smaller natural gas plants. In essence, we need an updated energy grid, not the same outdated model.

Coal plants should have no place in our energy future. Despite what the Department of Energy says on the matter, baseload power will soon be a burden to a well-functioning electric grid.

Nathan Campbell is a senior majoring in environmental engineering. His column runs biweekly. 

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