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Could another polar vortex lead to energy shortages?

Dec 9, 2014

The coal industry and conservative politicians say new carbon rules for coal-burning power plants will kill the industry, and they warn that without coal, extreme weather events, like last year's polar vortex, could leave people in the cold and dark. But how well does this argument hold up?

Working the energy market

It’s a cold day, the first this season Fred White is turning on the heat. He could fire up the gas, but today he’s using his wood furnace. He pours in a bag of wood pellets.

“This will last three or four days."

White says he installed a wood furnace five years ago, because gas prices were getting too high.

Now, he can work the energy market.

“If gas prices go way up, sorry East Ohio Gas, I’m buying pellets. If the price of gas goes down, sorry pellet dudes, I’m buying gas," he says.

Power supply 'tight' on below-zero days 

When temperatures dip — in some places last year they were 30-degrees below average — homes, businesses, and industries all needed more power.

“On the worst day last January the grid was very tight on power supply," says Ray Dotter, a spokesman for PJM Interconnection. It runs the electric grid for 13 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and West Virginia.

There was record demand for power last January.

“We had a record amount of generation, of power plants, that were supposed to be available, but were not available, to operate," Dotter says.

PJM and other electric grid operators around the country are worried about rolling blackouts.

“We had coal piles that were frozen shut, conveyer belts to take the coal that wouldn’t move. And parts in the plants that didn’t work at all." — Jay Apt, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Electric Industry Center

So, why on the days of most need were power plants unable to run? Jay Apt directs Carnegie Mellon University's Electricity Industry Center. He says about half the natural gas power outages were caused by plants malfunctioning in the extreme cold.

“Coal plants - the same thing. We had coal piles that were frozen shut, conveyer belts to take the coal that wouldn’t move. And parts in the plants that didn’t work at all," Apt says.

Some in the energy industry say the electric grid needed every coal plant in the fleet. But by next year, many will be shut down. Doug Collafella is spokesperson for Ohio-based FirstEnergy, which owns power plants and utility companies in several states. Most of their energy comes from coal.

Collafella says FirstEnergy has three coal plants along Lake Erie scheduled for closure next year because of environmental regulations.

“We have to ensure that we do not set up rules that favor one source of generation over the other, and that we lose these critical facilities," he says.

Is cheaper natural gas to blame instead?

But others in the industry say coal plants are not closing because of mercury and coal regulations. Lee Davis is east region president for the power producer NRG. He says coal is being shut down because it can’t compete financially.

“The biggest driver that has driven pressure on coal plants, and nuclear plants for that matter, is the price of natural gas," says Davis.

But natural gas usage also contributed to the energy problems during the polar vortex. Energy experts say part of the problem was infrastructure: a lack of pipelines.

Many gas plants couldn’t get the gas they needed to run, so they sat idle.

Ray Dotter at the PJM electric grid says they’re working on these issues. But in the long run, producing coal, natural gas and other fuels could help make the grid more stable.

“There’s less of a reliance on any one fuel, and more of a diversity among all of them,” he says.

It’s kind of a large-scale version of what Fred White set up at his house in Ohio. Most days he can choose to heat with gas or wood pellets, depending on what’s cheaper. But if one of them isn’t available, he still has a way to keep warm.