Tipping Points and Taking Action for Grid Resilience
Summer’s sweltering afternoons are receding into fall’s delightfully crisp mornings, soon to be followed by winter’s cold, snow and ice. Through all seasons, Americans continue to count on the reliable flow of electricity.
From homes to hospitals, banks to schools, farms to factories, police stations to firehouses, medical labs to military bases, telecommunications to mass transit, America’s energy and economic security – and thereby its national security – depends upon this vital flow of uninterrupted power. Modern civilization rests on the foundation that a resilient and secure electric grid provides.
Today’s grid depends on a far more diverse fuel supply than it once did. But rapidly evolving threats and fundamental changes within our generation mix are putting the future resiliency of America’s grid – and the reliability of the power it supplies – at risk.
Premature retirements of coal and nuclear generation units are approaching a tipping point that, if reached, will jeopardize the grid’s ability to recover from growing cyber- or physical attacks, or extreme weather events. Unless we change course – and soon – the lack of an on-site, fuel-secure supply that these energy sources provide will dramatically increase our vulnerability to disruption and prolonged outages.
As the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, respectively, for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the federal government’s lead agency for ensuring grid resilience and security, Secretary Rick Perry and I share President Trump’s concern about this issue. Consequently, at the President’s direction, and consistent with our authority, DOE is taking immediate action to temporarily stop additional retirements before the capacity and reliability they provide to our generation mix are irreversibly lost.
Fuel-secure coal and nuclear currently generate about 50 percent of our nation’s electricity. Pipeline-dependent natural gas accounts for 35 percent of our energy mix, and intermittent renewables like solar, hydro and wind make up the remaining 15 percent. That generation diversity ensures that when one fuel underperforms, another can fill the void.
Since the onset of the shale revolution expanded the use of natural gas and technological advancements boosted the generation capabilities of renewables, coal and nuclear have declined. This is part of the evolution of energy sources. However, the critical point is that this natural transition has become forced, and is outpacing the system’s ability to fill the supply gap with equal reliability during a crisis or demand spike.
Natural gas is attractive because it is currently abundant, clean and cheap. But its delivery depends on a vast network of pipelines that are vulnerable to cyber- and physical attack. If critical pipelines are damaged, destroyed or disabled by natural elements or bad actors, renewables must be ready to fill the gap. But renewables, while clean and cheap thanks to subsidies, are intermittent and their energy cannot yet be stored in quantities that make them a reliable alternative.
Allowing the other half of our nation’s supply — our coal and nuclear plants — to wither on the vine would be the height of irresponsibility.
But today, that is what is happening.
Between 2002 and April 2018, a total of 672 coal generating units were retired or prematurely closed. Since 2013, six nuclear units have retired prematurely and as of August 2018, 13 more were scheduled for premature retirement.
For too long, government at all levels has overregulated coal and nuclear while subsidizing renewables in ways that have left entire regions of the country increasingly over-reliant on fuels that alone are unable to meet our constant and growing energy needs.
The bottom line is that such actions have taken their toll – none more so than the previous administration’s war on coal. The shame is that, by any rational calculation, this war on us all – from consumers to coal miners – was utterly unnecessary. Coal-fired plants have become dramatically cleaner in recent years, and further progress is sure to follow.
Due in part to DOE’s Clean Coal Technology Program – created as a partnership between government and industry – the country has seen the emergence of state-of-the-art, coal-fired power plants that drastically reduce air pollutants. Between 1970 and 2016, the U.S. coal fleet cut emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and airborne particulates by as much as 93 percent. Today’s technologies can also achieve 90 percent removal of mercury from coal, to levels that are so low, they are nearly undetectable.
And through breakthroughs in carbon capture and utilization techniques, we are finding ways to contain coal emissions and put them to use in science and medicine.
Despite this progress, the heavy hand of government continues to work against both coal and nuclear power in other ways. Wholesale electricity markets are saddled with byzantine rules and regulations that fail to value either fuel for its most essential advantage – reliability.
Coal and nuclear are by far the nation’s most reliable grid fuels. Both deliver baseload energy 24/7, rain or shine, wind or calm. And unlike pipeline-dependent natural gas or renewables, both fuels can be stockpiled on-site for use when they are needed most.
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.