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National View: Deep freeze a chilling reminder we still need coal, nuclear energy

The stunning cold that swept the northern United States recently — and slammed Minnesota and the Midwest, in particular — was eye-opening for many Americans. It reminded us just how dependent we are on modern infrastructure for our survival. Nature is not always kind, and the depth of these Arctic conditions surprised some who were unprepared for life-threatening conditions.

Terry JarrettThe legacy of the 2019 deep freeze may be that it revealed unexpected gaps in America's power grid — and highlighted the work ahead for states hoping to keep electricity flowing under challenging circumstances. Simply put, millions of Americans learned just how important "baseload power" is in their daily lives.

Temperatures in Chicago plummeted to as low as minus-21. In Minnesota, Minneapolis saw minus-28 and Cotton dropped to minus-56, a tie for the fifth-coldest temperature in state history.

Such painful cold can deliver unexpected consequences. Xcel Energy, which supplies gas and electricity throughout many Midwestern states, issued an advisory to residents in central Minnesota to lower their thermostats to 60 degrees or less and to avoid using natural-gas appliances like water heaters. Xcel subsequently requested customers lower their thermostats further, to 55 degrees. The utility explained that extreme weather conditions had resulted in a "significant" strain on their natural gas system.

In Detroit, where temperatures hit a record minus-11 on Jan. 30, DTE Energy Co. asked customers to reduce electricity usage. Across parts of Michigan, Consumers Energy called for customers to reduce natural-gas usage. The company even requested that General Motors suspend work at several manufacturing plants.

In the Chicago area, wind turbines were shut down. Under such frigid conditions, turbine blades can crack, and gearboxes can simply seize up. As overall wind conditions slackened in the cold, heavy air, utilities faced with escalating demand switched to coal and natural gas. Bloomberg News reported that coal power plants in the region were forced to ramp up, "temporarily supplying about half the electricity needs in the two grids that serve most of the affected region — the Southwest Power Pool and Midcontinent Independent System Operator."

These were life-threatening problems. And implicit in such conditions is the obligation to take action that can safeguard sturdy, reliable power before the next, unexpected lurch of dangerous weather comes along.

America is undoubtedly at a crossroads right now, with wind and solar advocates urging a large-scale transition to renewable energy. And the proliferation of domestic natural-gas production already has initiated a shift in the nation's electricity-generation profile. But the recent deep freeze reminded us to hedge our bets enough to ensure that lives are protected.

This past Thanksgiving, the Northeastern U.S. saw a record cold snap that drained existing natural gas storage supply and raised gas prices. Pipeline limitations forced New England to import shipments of liquefied natural gas from Russia. And the wind turbines and solar panels that currently provide up to 7.6 percent of America's electricity will always require back-up support when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine.

What the nation needs to consider is that hasty efforts to keep shutting down coal and nuclear plants could make the U.S. vulnerable during the next perfect storm. Americans consume nearly 4 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity each year, with half of that coming from coal and nuclear. It is these coal and nuclear plants that keep churning out foundational baseload power and can spin up to maximum output when dangerous winter conditions emerge.

Any talk of America's future energy profile must include provisions to ensure that baseload power needs can always be met. This winter's deep freeze showed it would be foolhardy not to preserve coal and nuclear as available options.

Because lives will always be at stake, America must plan for an "all-of-the-above" energy mix in the coming years.

Terry M. Jarrett of Jefferson City, MO is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission, and he contributes regularly to LeadingLightEnergy.com. He wrote this for the News Tribune.