The superior reliability of these energy resources proved to be crucially important during the Polar Vortex of 2014, when temperatures plunged across the country for months and tens of millions of Americans came closer to losing power for an extended period than they would ever want to know.
Since the bulk of our natural gas resources were prioritized for home heating, grid operators struggled to meet heightened demand for electricity. The loss of generation capacity could have been catastrophic. But fortunately, fuel-secure coal and nuclear plants were online and able to meet the emergency demand, maintain grid resilience and serve customers at a critical time.
Some of those same plants had already been scheduled for retirement. And since 2014, many have retired. What if they had retired before the Polar Vortex had occurred? How would the grid have fared when this severe weather event was putting maximum stress on its continued ability to deliver electricity?
A similar story played out when generation capacity was again tested during last winter’s Bomb Cyclone. Pipeline infrastructure limitations stretched New England’s grid so thinly, the region actually imported natural gas from Russia. Fortunately, sufficient fuel-secure generation was available to keep the lights on.
But beyond extreme weather, our grid is being tested in ways unseen by most Americans. Rogue states, terrorist organizations and transnational criminal enterprises are launching thousands of attacks on our electric grid every day. And as grid components like pipelines and transmission lines modernize and become more web-dependent, they are increasingly susceptible to cyber-threats.
Defending our grid from such an onslaught will require all the ingenuity, focus and determination we can muster. But if we are to ensure that those who wish us harm are not successful, we must maintain a reserve capacity of on-site electrical generation that cannot be hacked.
The new inconvenient truth is that the more this disturbing trend of fuel-secure retirements continues, the less resilient – or able to recover from stress or crisis – our grid will be.
For the sake of grid resilience alone, U.S. energy policy must spur, not spurn, the development of coal and nuclear power.
Thankfully, under the leadership of President Trump, we are supporting a truly “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. Rather than driving out coal by imposing more regulation, we seek to drive down emissions through continued innovation.
Yet, politically powerful opponents on both ends of the spectrum are digging in their heels. On one side, they decry the use of cleaner coal because it is not emissions-free; on the other, they reject what they view as government intervention in electricity markets.
Their knee-jerk opposition has made them blind to the one terrible risk that dwarfs nearly all others, a risk that is neither economic nor environmental, but societal.
Put simply, if America’s electric grid ever goes down and stays down, modern life will come to a halt. Opponents argue that the probability of this happening is not high. But those of us who bear the responsibility for our national security know that probability is only half the picture.
The other half is consequence.
Though an event may be unlikely, that does not absolve us of the duty to prepare and defend against it. If the consequences of an energy crisis are sufficiently dire, we have a responsibility to take reasonable and preventative measures.
And so, the President and Secretary Perry are correct to be concerned. I join them in working to preserve our fuel diversity and emphasizing that the reliability and resilience of our grid is an issue of energy, economy and yes, national security.
It is time for a national discussion on this issue, coupled by responsible and decisive action. It is time to stop reviling, and to start reviving, both coal and nuclear energy. It is time to stop taking our energy security for granted. Let’s make the right choices today, to ensure a safe and secure tomorrow, no matter what storms may lie ahead.
Dan Brouillette is the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.