The premature shutdown of coal and nuclear power plants is sobering evidence that some parts of the country could face an electric-power crisis.
New England is especially hard put to keep up with the demand for electricity from industrial and commercial customers who need “big data” to stay competitive. On top of that are the growing power demands of social media.
In the last three decades, computing speeds have risen more than 200,000-fold, but there is scant awareness of the enormous amount of electricity needed to power the digital revolution. Thousands of data centers are being built across the country, each needing as much electricity as a large factory.
Not surprisingly, the electric power grid is being tested as never before. More than anything else, commercial customers require resiliency and reliability from the grid, with power delivered on demand, without any interruption. A “hiccup” in power deliverability lasting less than a second can cost a company hundreds of millions of dollars.
The integrity of the power grid depends on a diverse portfolio of generating options that, in turn, can serve against possible supply disruptions and spikes in electricity prices. But this diversity may be at risk, and it could lead to higher consumer costs. In New England, pipeline constraints on natural gas have produced problems with fuel availability and volatility in electricity prices. Yet there is no longer any hedge against events such as those experienced last winter.
Nationally, since 1995, the United States has built some 350,000 megawatts of gas-fired power capacity, approximately 75 percent of all electricity additions. Coal and nuclear, the two sources that can produce electricity around the clock with no price volatility represent a mere 6 percent of the total.
Worse still, no coal plant planned for future use can meet EPA’s proposed standards for greenhouse gas emissions, and the new requirement to curb carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal plants is putting further pressure on coal. Together, the rules could lead to coal’s demise.
In addition, the premature retirement of Vermont Yankee at the end of this year and four other nuclear plants across the country underscore the lack of investment in base-load power capacity.
Solar and wind energy, although valuable in supplying peak power, do not have the capability to provide large-scale energy storage needed for base-load power, delivered 24/7. How to reconcile this with the unfortunate fact that 30 states have adopted renewable electricity standards to encourage the addition of solar and wind power?
New Hampshire’s standard, established in 2007, requires the state’s electricity suppliers to produce nearly a quarter of New Hampshire’s power from renewable sources by 2025.
Clearly, the time has come for solar and wind to compete on their own with coal and nuclear power, without state mandates or subsidies. Ohio recently rolled back its renewable mandate, freezing the phasing in of power that utilities must buy from renewable energy sources. New Hampshire should do the same.
Environmental groups should have no objection to this idea, if their objective really is to reduce greenhouse emissions to acceptable levels. Clean coal and nuclear power need to be part of the energy mix. Advanced coal combustion technologies with greater efficiencies have the potential to achieve significant reductions in carbon emissions, and carbon capture-and-storage systems are being tested. Nuclear plants such as Seabrook and Pilgrim are carbon-free.
What must be avoided is plunging down the road toward increased reliance on renewable energy sources without considering the economic and environmental ramifications. Witness what has happened in Germany.
After the Fukushima nuclear accident, Germany shut down its fleet of nuclear plants and ramped up the use of wind and solar power. But renewables couldn’t replace nuclear power, so to avoid a power shortage, Germany burned a lot more coal. Not surprisingly, greenhouse emissions soared and electricity prices doubled. Today Germany’s electricity prices are three times those in the United States.
(V.K. Mathur is professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of New Hampshire.)
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