By Jon McKinney
August 6, 2018 - West Virginians are no strangers to pro-coal rhetoric. Nearly every national politician that has ventured into the Mountain State in search of votes has had good things to say about an industry that fuels our state’s economy and provides a reliable source of power that is critical to maintaining our national defense.
Rhetoric is well and good — but there’s nothing like real action from Washington to prove that our leaders truly recognize the critical role the coal fleet plays in our grid’s resilience, particularly in the face of security threats. Coal is one of few generation resources that can be stockpiled on-site. This is important to make sure our power stays on in the case of freezing temperatures — like we saw with the ‘Bomb Cyclone’ in January of this year — but it also plays a valuable role in protecting our grid from attacks.
Recently, a memo revealed President Donald Trump had directed Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take immediate steps to halt the closure of coal-fired power plants. This is big news, and it shows that the Trump administration is serious about ensuring a reliable, resilient and secure power grid for our nation in the face of threats ranging from terrorism to extreme weather.
The order, which would be issued by the Department of Energy under the Defense Production Act and Federal Power Act, would serve as a “temporary stop-gap measure to prevent the further permanent loss of the fuel-secure electric generation capacity for the grid upon which our national security depends.”
The DOE order is a response to a trend that is all too familiar to West Virginians: the rapid retirement of coal-fueled power generation capacity. Forty percent of the nation’s coal fleet has either already shut down or is scheduled to do so in the very near future. Eighteen coal-fueled plants have closed in West Virginia alone — with more closures very possibly on the way.
This dynamic means more than lost jobs here in West Virginia and other coal states: It also amounts to a very real threat to both our power grid and our national security. Federal action in this case should be welcomed and applauded.
No power source is better positioned to maintain a resilient and secure grid than that which comes from our coal fleet. And that’s what makes the administration’s order so important to our future.
The capacity lost upon the retirement of fuel-secure coal power plants is often replaced by new generation from natural gas or renewables. And while those fuels have a role to play in a diverse power grid, excessive reliance on these fuels erodes power security and resilience.
The costs associated with a power outage stemming from a large attack on our nation’s gas pipeline network would be immense. The DOE’s order seeks to guard against this fear by keeping fuel-secure coal power capacity in broad service while the security of our pipeline network is addressed in full.
Long-term efforts to sustain the coal fleet’s future are crucial to our nation’s economic and security outlook. In the meantime, though, the DOE’s order represents a vital step forward in the effort to ensure that our most reliable, resilient, and secure source of power stays online while the crucial infrastructure questions we face are considered.