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National View: Americans support shoring up strained U.S. power grid

It often appears that the American people have more good horse sense than Washington. Case in point: right now, Beltway pundits are busily critiquing the Trump administration's proposal to shore up baseload power in the U.S. while, at the same ti...

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It often appears that the American people have more good horse sense than Washington. Case in point: right now, Beltway pundits are busily critiquing the Trump administration's proposal to shore up baseload power in the U.S. while, at the same time, according to a new poll, a majority of Americans support it.

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Terry Jarrett

What exactly has the administration proposed that has prompted such heavy debate among energy commentators and environmental activists?

The Department of Energy wants to exercise its emergency authority over power-grid operators and ask them to source electricity from "at-risk" coal and nuclear plants. All of this follows a plan to safeguard domestic energy supplies and ensure sufficient baseload power throughout the nation.

Critics see this as "propping up" the coal industry. But there's an overarching issue. For the first time in many years, the reliability of America's power grid has come into question. And when confronted with such concerns, 55 percent of Americans believe the U.S. government should support coal and nuclear power plants, given their ability to run continuously while storing on-site fuel supplies.

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All of this matters because the nation's power grid is showing signs of strain. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. electric grid narrowly avoided power outages in early 2018 during an extended cold snap that pummeled the eastern United States. The region's coal power plants provided 55 percent of incremental daily U.S. power generation during the harshest winter days. And Energy found that, "Without the resilience of coal plants ... the eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts."

The extreme winter weather was so challenging that all of the nation's 99 nuclear plants were spun into operation at the same time. And in the Midwest, some natural-gas power plants had trouble obtaining supplies, forcing outages and an increased reliance on fuel oil.

Overall, the Department of Energy notes that coal yielded three times the incremental power generation of natural gas and 12 times that of nuclear units this past winter. And wind energy dropped 12 percent lower than during a typical winter period - which necessitated "dispatchable" coal-fired power to make up the difference.

If that's not enough, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation is projecting possible electricity shortages this summer for both Texas and California. Texas has lost roughly 4.5 gigawatts of coal generation due to recent power plant retirements. And California is experiencing troubles with natural-gas generation because of ongoing constraints at the critical Aliso Canyon storage facility. With projections that another 12,000 megawatts of coal-fired power is expected to retire this year - enough electricity to power 8 million homes - it's not hard to see why America's power grid might grow a bit shaky.

More than 100,000 megawatts of coal-fired power has been forced into retirement since 2010, and the effects of a regulatory onslaught still reverberate. The administration of President Donald Trump believes federal action is necessary to halt the premature retirement of more baseload power. As the president's team explained in a recent memo, "Too many of these fuel-secure plants have retired prematurely and many more have recently announced retirement."

The American people understand the importance of ample electricity generation; 73 percent of them continue to favor an all-of-the-above energy strategy that includes coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and renewables. It's a sensible position since the nation relies on robust electricity generation to enable water treatment, sanitation, hospitals, refrigeration, and home heating.

Making sure America's electric grid continues to work at all times shouldn't simply be a matter of faith, though - and it's wise to act now to ensure sufficient, ongoing baseload power.

  

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Terry 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. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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