By Jim Ross
February 2, 2019 - Sitting in my house on the first day of a polar vortex that has frozen a good chunk of the Lower 48, I can't help but be thankful some people's dreams of eliminating coal as a power source has not come to fruition yet.
Having 100 percent of our power come from renewables is a nice idea, but it bumps up against our needs when weather turns really, really bad.
The Tri-State area is part of the PJM region, an electric grid management organization that stretches from the Atlantic Coast of New Jersey westward into central Kentucky. It includes the Chicago area as well. As of 11 a.m. Wednesday, power plants in the PJM region were producing 127,431 megawatts of electricity. That's about 50 percent above normal.
Coal-burning power plants, which have had a declining share of the generating market for several years, were pumping out 46,611 megawatts of that, or about 37 percent. Natural gas plants produced 36,369 megawatts, or 29 percent. Nuclear plants produced 34,527, or 27 percent.
So coal and gas - fossil fuels - kept the lights on and furnaces running by providing two-thirds of the region's power needs. The two sources that are on their way out - coal and nuclear - combined to provide the same amount.
Where were renewables? Even on a windy day, renewables provided 8,357 megawatts to the grid. That was a mere 7 percent. Projections were that Thursday would have even higher power demands than Wednesday, so fossil fuels would be needed even more.
The advantage that coal and nuclear power plants bring to the grid is that they store their fuel on site. Unlike natural gas, there's no just-in-time delivery. That came in handy in this particular cold snap. Early on in his administration, President Donald Trump had the right idea when he said we need to maintain power generation where fuel supply is not disrupted by disaster or attack. His method was off base, but the idea itself was sound.
The PJM region probably will be the most dependent on fossil fuels and nuclear plants going forward. Our hydroelectric, solar and geothermal potentials are among the smallest nationally. While increasing renewables is a good idea for the nation as a whole, it will take more work and ingenuity here than elsewhere.
That's all based on current technology, of course. As fracking showed us, things can change quickly.
On a short-term basis, the market for thermal coal, the kind burned by power plants, is ticking up in recent months, at least on the Norfolk Southern network.
"On the utility front, stockpiles have declined in the North and in the South by 17 days over the past year, and talking to some of our coal-producing customers, it's pretty clear that utilities are screaming for coal at this point," Alan Shaw, Norfolk Southern's chief marketing officer, said in the quarterly conference call with investment analysts last week.
Earlier in the call, Shaw said domestic utility demand for coal had increased as the price for natural gas had increased. Shaw also said the overseas demand for U.S. coal has increased, too.
So far this month, coal traffic on the Norfolk Southern system is up 18.6 percent compared with last year. On CSX, coal traffic is up 10.9 percent. Most of the increase came in the first part of the month. And that's for all coal - thermal and metallurgical; domestic and export.
Bad pun alert: Perhaps we should refer to this weather event as the coal-ar vortex.