As Snowﬂakes, Facts Fall Where They May
By Holly Thompson and Jim Thompson
“Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood, when blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud.
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.’” – Bob Dylan
I write in the perilous darkness of what feels to me like an Arctic winter. It is 21 degrees; my weather app merrily reports that it feels like 12. We are to accumulate two to four more inches of snow here in Nashville today.
I sit on my feet to keep my toes from freezing and snapping off. Both my parents, in turn, call to ask me if I have enough food. In a state of survivalist panic, I waddle to the Publix across the street, buy 20 protein bars and nothing else. This, I thought, will keep me alive – albeit in a state of gastrointestinal distress – when we lose power.
The circumstances remind me of a conversation I had with Jim Thompson. About three weeks ago, I called him, and I asked: “In a changing media landscape, how do we find the truth about coal?”
I am, so help me, an English major. I feel preoccupied with “the truth,” whatever that is. I’ve been trying to get it out of Jim Thompson for 23 years in some way or another. This is the hallmark of being his daughter: life is worth investigating. We had mastered the Socratic method by the time I was four: “Why? Why? Why?” I’ve been interrogating him ever since. I confess, though, that my interest in coal was limited.
To my dismay, my life has expanded beyond Barbies. I have an apartment now. I have a recycling bin. I usually turn off the water when I brush my teeth. I thought I might be at the right age to begin a phaseal crusade for the environment. I needed to ask Jim what coal looked like in 2021, and I needed to ask him why.
How do we find out the truth?
“Approach with an open mind and truly consider the facts,” he said. “The facts will fall where they may.”
Coal is a challenging subject. Asking about coal, I have realized, can become a shorthand for asking about one’s values. Do you value the environment? Capital? Labor? Human lives? What do you value? It seemed to me that there were trade-offs to be wrestled with, and I told him as much.
“Trade-offs isn’t a good way to frame it. Instead, consider balancing needs and desires in a way that addresses the need for a clean environment and the need for a good life and a safe life,” said Jim.
In other families, I imagine, conversations between daughter and father are a bit different. But this is our family and my life. It worked for an over-curious child.
My mind somersaults back to the present – the relentless cold, the worrisome ice – and to my family roots. Jim Thompson is from Texas, and while I was born in Tennessee, I suppose there is a Lone Star somewhere deep in my psyche. With the assault of a recent record cold event, millions of Texans – my distant cousins – have been desperate for heat, desperate to flick the light switch we take for granted.
I am baffled when I lose power. I flicked the switch, I think, already defensive. What’s wrong with this place?! Modernity demands electricity, constantly and at a moment’s notice. Living in a 600 square foot urban perch in Nashville makes me wonder what exactly it is I’d do if I lost heat. No building a fire here, not on these laminate floors! Should a life of unquestioned convenience upend, I’ll be the first to go.
With extreme cold weather covering literally most of the country in February, coal once again showed why it is still such an important fuel source – its reliability. Electricity grid operators Southwest Power Pool (SPP), Midcontinent System Operator (MISO) and PJM Interconnection relied on coal more than other sources during much of this winter siege.
In the Lone Star state, it is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) that operates the grid, managing the flow of electric power to more than 26 million customers.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas name, at this moment, is ironic. With high demand and unavailability of large chunks of generating capacity, ERCOT had ordered rolling power outages. And rolling subsequently turned into more than just rolling for many. Devastation ensued. At one point during this winter event, more than four million ERCOT customers were without power.
Other grid operators also had to institute some emergency measures and service interruptions during this time. But the ERCOT situation, it seems, is epic, as were the power prices there which shot up to the maximum $9,000 per megawatt-hour. And now the finger-pointing has begun: it’s a market design problem, it’s the Texas grid – sort of an island unto itself apparently, or it’s the changing generation mix.
On that last point, my dad has opined: “When you get rid of coal in favor of gas and wind, you’re trading the reliability of the coal pile for exposure to the weather,” Jim once told me. “Your system becomes more vulnerable to risk.” More than five GW of coal-fueled power in the ERCOT system has been retired during the last five years.
I wish I had another blanket. The cats have commandeered my heating pad. And I think back again to what my father has told me about an industry in which he has such pride.
The outlook for the coal industry, he told me, could appear quite bleak. It can be difficult to bring young talent into an industry perceived to be on the decline, as the coal industry can sometimes be.
This is all a little too topical for comfort, I think now. It’s all more comfortable to speculate about when the implications are not so dire. Of course, that direness is what makes it all the more important to speculate.
“Why?” I needed to know. “Why is it on the decline?”
There are a number of reasons. Jim can fire them off one after another. Regulations have made mining and burning coal a more expensive endeavor. Fracking technology made gas abundant and more competitive, and thus more popular. Wind and solar power receive government subsidies. For coal producers, finding investor partners is challenging – too often they are unwilling to lend on a reason-to-reason basis, or they are looking for short-term investments. It is unlikely that new coal plants will be built in the foreseeable future; the “existing fleet” will have to carry the load even as it remains under siege. Adversity piles up.
I needed to backtrack. With all this adversity piling up, then why, I asked, why do we continue to burn coal? It is a simple question, but those seem to be the ones that get to the truth of the matter, don’t they? Why?
Once again, I pick up the phone and call my father. He isn’t busy these days – his time is filled by games of solo checkers and periods, he says, of deep self-loathing. He is surprised and pleased, though, that this call isn’t for any new funds. Instead, he is able to discuss his favorite subject.
The word adversity comes back to mind – not for the industry this time, but for its consumers. Environmental adversity, such as that which brought the February storms, is a feature of earthly living, but our resources are the thing that should ease those adversities.
Coal has the capacity to do that. That’s why it is still important in the U.S. and why its global use continues to grow. Considering what my distant cousins in Texas have recently experienced reminds me of all of the people globally who have either no access or very unreliable access to electricity. Coal has directly helped ease many adversities, both environmental and economic, and it is critically important in developing economies.
U.S. coal, Jim reminds me, is high quality and produced under stringent environmental laws and regulations, often far more rigorous and comprehensive than those of other countries. An environmentally conscious consumer can have confidence in its environmental profile. This should be a point of focus, reinforcing its reliability, and not something to shy away from in discussing the environmental implications of fossil fuel usage.
Jim expects that industry professionals – both longtime members of the industry and new recruits alike – will continue to be dedicated to mining, transporting and using coal in safe, responsible ways. This is not a topic to be shy about, either. Dialoging about the merits of coal, underscoring a passion for it and demonstrating the why are things that will attract new talent to the industry.
And then I remember what Jim told me about coal plants closing. Contemplate that as reports continue of people suffering without electricity. As snowflakes, facts will fall where they may. Jim used to wear a shirt that said “Coal Keeps the Lights On!” I suppose it’s true, then.
Holly Thompson is an English major at Belmont University, and Jim Thompson is the former Executive Director of North American Coal for IHS Markit.