This is the Truth About Coal

There has been a recent push to revive US coal-fired power plants in the name of electric power resilience and reliability. Why is this a bad idea? It is a bad idea for several reasons. Following is a list of the top 4 reasons why coal is a bad idea

Electricity from Coal Plants is More Expensive

Coal requires all of us to pay more on our energy bills. It’s expensive compared to most other forms of power from renewable energy to natural gas. According to Lazard’s most recent report on the unsubsidized levelized cost of energy, the lowest cost coal plant is $60/MWh this is in comparison to wind at $30/MWh, gas combined cycle at $42/MWh and utility scale solar at $43/MWh. When there is an apples to apples comparison between coal and renewable energy. This means that we are looking at plants that produce the same amount kWh per year, coal is much higher than solar and significantly higher than solar. The facts demonstrate that coal is more expensive than most other viable options. Keep in mind that this is unsubsidized costs, none of the “unfair” investment tax credits or production tax credits are included in this price. Further, this does not include the social and environmental costs that come from coal. That is covered later.

Coal Plants are a Public Health Nuisance

Speaking of social and environmental costs, coal power plants emit mercury and a variety of other greenhouse gas emissions that should be properly accounted for. The key concern here is the amount of mercury emitted by coal plants. which can result in significant health risks. According to a recent EPA analysis, over 42% of mercury emissions in the United States come from coal fired power plants. Overall 50% of mercury emissions comes from fossil fuel plants. This does not include all of the other dioxins and heavy metals that come from primarily coal plants. Below you can see the dispersion of mercury/toxic emitting power plants.

EPA – Toxic Rule Facilities

The problem with mercury is that it significantly increases a community’s health risk. High levels of mercury emitted from power plants can harm brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune systems of people of all ages. Further, mercury from power plants has been found to have a significant negative impact on a baby’s development, with particular impacts to a baby’s nervous system.

Coal Plants are not that Resilient

Coal power plants are not as resilient as some would like us to believe. Coal plants and the supply chain that gets coal to the power plants are highly susceptible to cyber, physical and climate risks. A recent study by the National Academies of Science titled Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy found that ““The rail net­works that transport the nation’s coal—like air traffic control and electric trans­mission networks—have an inherent fragility and instability common to complex networks. Because con­cerns about sabotage and terrorism were largely ignored until recently, existing networks were created with potential choke points [like some rail bridges over major rivers]…that cause vulnerabili­ty…[and] the potential for small-scale issues to become large-scale disruptions.”

Climate Change May Hurt Rail System

The Department of Energy further elaborates on the fragility of coal transport by finding  “Hardly a month goes by that delivery of Powder River Basin (PRB) coal somewhere in the supply chain is not interrupted by a derailment, freezing, flooding, or other natural occurrence.” Climate change is likely to increase heat that buckles rails, floods and storms that undermine tracks, and extreme weather that spikes electric demand. Meanwhile, utilities, having cut coal inventories threefold during 1980–2000 to save cost, keep trying to squeeze out more cost, exacerbating risk.” A recent example of coal not being that fuel secure was the Texas WA Parish plant. During Hurricane Harvey, the plant had to switch from coal to natural gas due to saturated coal piles. Those proponents for coal should also recall the Polar Vortex that resulted in frozen coal piles. You can’t burn frozen coal.

One other thing, coal or any other water-cooled power generation system can’t operate or at least not very efficiently when the water is too warm or there is not enough water to cool the plant. I covered this in a recent blog post on the power sector having a significant water problem.

Climate Change Induced Lack of Water Reduces Power Resilience

Coal Plants are Significant Greenhouse Gas Emitters

Can’t forget this one. Coal power plants emit significant greenhouse gas emissions. In the US, coal accounts for 67% of greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector. Of the total greenhouse gas emissions, 28% comes from electric power generation. Granted, overall GHG emissions have come down due to fuel switching since 1990, but not by much. This largely due to much of the switching is to natural gas, another greenhouse gas contributor, although not as large of one. Also, there have some increases in demand across parts of the country which has limited overall reduction.

Coal Power Plant’s Climate Change Problem

The current administration has not made the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. By not making this connection, that cannot see that sustaining or increasing emissions will result in a significant increase in storm intensity that will negatively impact the overall power system, i.e. hurt system resilience. Storm intensity, demonstrated by Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria, the Polar Vortex, to name a few, is anticipated to significantly increase under current greenhouse gas projection scenarios. If the concern of the administration is resilience of our power system due to extreme storms, there probably should be some effort to reduce the likelihood of this intensity by reducing the cause.

To Conclude

There are four really good reasons why coal fired power plants may not be the best option for a resilient and reliable grid. This was just a high-level overview. Each of these topics could be their own posts. For the long-term resilience of our electric power system, it is key that we not look to short-term fixes to the detriment of long-term health, economic and environmental well-being.




Does Extreme Weather Drive Investment in Resilient Infrastructure? Sometimes…

This is an excerpt of a white paper published at HARC on 5/21/2018…

Extreme Weather Events

Since 1980 the United States has experienced 219 separate billion-dollar-plus natural disaster weather events. The total cost of these 219 events is estimated to be $1.8 trillion dollars. This takes into account 2017, which is on record as being the most costly year for natural disasters, with a cumulative cost of over $300 billion dollars. The number and intensity of these weather events are causing growing concern across the globe as well.

The risks faced by the public and private sector related to climate include direct physical impacts on

electric power climate resilience
Pink Sherbet Photography from Utah, USA

investments, degradation of critical infrastructure, reduced availability of key inputs and resources, supply chain disruptions and changes in workforce availability and productivity.  The Global Risks Report 2016, finds that two of the top three concerns for business over the next 10 years are failure of climate change mitigation and a failure to adapt to potential extreme weather events. The concern indicated as most crucial is a water crises. All of these issues point to increasing likelihood of investment in more resilient infrastructure in order to limit these risks. It is anticipated that these extreme weather events are likely to increase over time, particularly with the intensity of floods, droughts, and/or heat waves. A similar increase in intensity is also predicted with tornadoes, hailstorms and thunderstorm winds, but there is still some uncertainty as to what extent and where.   These extreme storm events are intensifying disaster risk and will continue to have a significant impact on communities and infrastructure.  Recovery often requires enormous resources, which underscores the growing need for new adaptive infrastructure to make critical facilities and communities are more resilient.

For this study, we explore whether the growing number and intensity of storm events have led to greater investment in more resilient power systems. A resilient power system is one that is built to lessen the likelihood of a power outage.  These systems must manage and respond to power outage events to mitigate impacts, quickly recover when the power comes back on, and learn from the outage event to reduce the likelihood of future outages.

Our study period is from 2000 to 2016. During this timeframe, the United States experienced more than99,000 power outages, some small and some rather large. This includes ice storms that knock out power for a few thousand customers to Superstorm Sandy, which at the height of the blackout left approximately 5.7 million customers without power across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.  Further, severe weather events, including hurricanes, extreme heat, and droughts between 2004 and 2013, resulted in over 25 significant power generation disruptions that led to curtailment of power generation and power outages across the US.

We test whether power outages as a result of natural disasters influence decisions by organizations and critical facilities to adopt methods to reduce the likelihood of potentially detrimental power disruptions. One way to test this assumption is by looking at the deployment of combined heat and power (CHP) applications across the United States. CHP is by no means the only approach to mitigate power outage risk at a site, but is one of the more likely options to be pursued.

Combined Heat and Power & Power Resilience

Combined heat and power (CHP) is being touted as a technology that can help with power reliability and resilience concerns. CHP produces power on-site, typically using natural gas which is highly reliable. This was demonstrated during Hurricane Sandy, where CHP systems performed very well in comparison to the grid and diesel back-up generators. We have seen anecdotal evidence that CHP is coming online to improve site resilience, and a handful of states have been pushing for rules to promote resilient CHP. In this study, we wanted to see if CHP is more generally being installed to improve site resilience.

Currently, there are 81 GW of CHP installed across the United States, and significant potential for much more. A 2016 DOE study demonstrated that there is 340 GW more of technical potential for CHP. There has been considerable effort at the federal level to push for more CHP in the near-term. Examples include the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Federal Interconnection Standards, 2008 Federal Investment Tax Credit for CHP, 2008 Accelerated Depreciation for CHP boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) in 2011, and President Obama’s Executive Order in 2012 that set a goal of 40 GW of new CHP by 2020.

There has also been considerable regulatory and financial assistance activity at the state, utility, and local level. This includes interconnection standards, as well as incentives, grants, rebates, and loans. Some of the more notable activity includes New Jersey’s Energy Resilience Bank which provides grants and loans to cover 100% of costs of resilient systems, The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) CHP Incentive Program, and California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) which funds systems of up to 3 MW. Some other state activities to promote CHP for resilience include legislation in Texas and Louisiana that requires all newly constructed state facilities or state facilities undergoing major renovation to assess opportunities for CHP.  Similarly, Connecticut’s Microgrid Pilot Program has a central focus on the role of CHP.  Missouri, Illinois, and Michigan also have various CHP-focused energy resilience planning efforts.

Finish Reading at HARC Research…

The Key Reason Texas Power Grid is at Risk to Climate Change

Energy Planning

Are energy planners in Texas taking climate change seriously enough? The question pertains not to mitigation but rather to long-term resilience and adaptation of the state’s power generation portfolio. The state is doing OK in decarbonizing the grid through its record level wind investment and growing solar portfolio. Across the US, on a regular basis, new announcements are made of record-setting production and growth in the renewable energy sector. Just last week, Friday the 16th,  the Southwest Power Pool set a record with over 60% of its grid being powered by wind. We see solar installations going in at a record pace surpassing 2015 installations, with 10.6 billion watts of installed capacity. 2016 still remains the highest year for solar installations at 15.1 billion watts.


Decarbonizing is not enough

Further, like the rest of the country, the state is realizing ongoing coal power plant retirements, with 5 GW coming offline in the near term. All of this activity has lessened the carbon intensity of the Texas grid and helps reduce the risk of price hikes if there is ever a carbon tax or carbon fee and dividend passed.

So Texas is to some degree pulling its weight in decarbonizing its grid. It could be doing significantly more to reduce energy consumption. For example, we are dead last with our energy efficiency resource standard goals. We have the lowest goals in the nation, by a lot. Other than that and also the significant lack of incentives and rebates across most of ERCOT’s territory to deploy distributed energy resources, particularly rooftop solar, we are doing OK.

OK, but we could be doing better if not for the lack of action on implementing battery storage into the market. Although I do hear that we should expect the PUCT to be making battery storage a focus of theirs in the next few months. That is good news for all of our decarbonizing efforts, whether rooftop or utility scale.

Where we are lacking, and where much of the country is lacking, is moving our energy planning from climate mitigation efforts to climate adaptation. As I mentioned, the state is reducing its climate intensity to some degree, with greater deployment of renewables and coal-fired retirements. All market driven.

What we are not considering with our new and future generation assets is to what degree they are going to be impacted by a rapidly changing climate. It is true steps are being taken on the transmission and distribution side to harden the grid and improve grid resilience. Hurricane Harvey, although highlighting where we are in need of improvement, did not cause the damage that could have occurred if we had not already started to deploy smart grid and grid hardening assets throughout the transmission and distribution system.

The power development that is occurring now, primarily wind, solar and natural gas are being developed using weather models and market information that does not take into account the near and mid-term impact of climate change. Climate models are finding that in the next few decades there will be changes in cloud coverage and wind patterns. There is also a higher likelihood of long-term drought across the state. This does not include the increased probability of more intense hurricanes and other severe weather events.

Market is Short-sighted

Have our energy planners thought about what the grid would like if there is more cloud coverage or the wind becomes less predictable? The market is largely determining the generation portfolio for ERCOT. This is great in the short-term, we get the most economical generation built. Currently, in the ERCOT Generation Interconnection Status report, there are over 67 GW of power generation systems under study to potentially connect to the grid. 81% of this is solar or wind power generation, with the remainder natural gas. Of course, not all of this is going to come online but it demonstrates the direction we are going in the development of the future grid for Texas. This is great news for emissions. Having such a large proportion of the new generation systems being renewables will further reduce the carbon intensity of the Texas grid and reduce overall emissions. There is a very large assumption here in regards to our future grid. The assumption is that the weather is going to continue to be how it has been. It is anticipated the wind patterns will remain predictable and similar to what they are now, as well as cloud cover. It is also assumed that water will be available to cool the large proportion of our power that will continue to come from water-cooled natural gas power systems.

The question here is whether we are doing enough to mitigate future climate risks to our power generation systems. Specific to future water risks, there have been studies that demonstrate we would be in a bind if the state had another 2011 style drought. Which is true, but these studies do not seriously consider future climate scenarios to provide recommendations on how to mitigate this risk. Largely, our current energy planning process does not do enough to mitigate risk. Much of this lack of foresight is due to state leaders that do not see climate change as real. So there is no effort to mitigate something that they feel is not a risk. Also, as I said earlier, our generation portfolio development is largely market driven based on lowest cost generation resources. It does not take into account whether these plants will be able to operate as expected in the next 5, 10, 15, 20+ years.

Solutions for Energy Planning

What are some solutions to mitigate climate risk? First, we need to start using regional climate models in our energy planning. Further, with these climate models, we need to deploy new decision frameworks, possibly a robust decision-making framework that allows for improved decision making under deep uncertainty. Another approach would be a multi-criteria decision analysis framework which is already being deployed by some energy planners, mainly in Europe.  With these frameworks, we need to start looking at our technology options. For example, it is key that we look for ways to increase the opportunity for battery storage to participate as a generation resource, as well as support transmission and distribution. We should further support the deployment of combined heat and power or small natural gas gensets. (Enchanted Rock has an interesting model that should be considered).  We should also look to deploy and/or convert large natural gas plants to hybrid cooling or air-cooling. Finally, to reduce impacts of cloud coverage, we should facilitate greater adoption of distributed solar for residential and commercial rooftops. We see some interesting distributed solar options being supported by new blockchain technology facilitating peer-to-peer selling.


CHP Keeps Hospital Running During Hurricane Harvey – DOE EERE Post

By Taylor Jackson – DOE – Originally Posted in US Department of Energy’s EERE AMO Blog

Our thoughts and concerns are with all the people affected by natural disasters like the recent hurricanes and storms. With any major storm, energy reliability and security are major concerns for those in the storm’s path. Medical facilities in particular face significant risks if the power goes out – the ability to use energy for heating and cooling is crucial to patient care, protection of long-term medical research projects, and maintaining living and working conditions within hospitals.

While much of Houston, Texas, and the surrounding areas, were faced with uncertainty

TECO Harvey
Courtesy of TECO

as Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the Texas Medical Center – the largest medical center in the world – was able to sustain its air conditioning, refrigeration, heating, sterilization, laundry, and hot water needs throughout the storm thanks to the combined heat and power (CHP) installation operated by Thermal Energy Corp (TECO). CHP is a way to generate on-site electric power and useful thermal energy (heat) from a single fuel source. TECO’s CHP system at the Texas Medical Center uses natural gas to deliver 48 MW of power to provide reliability and security to the 19 million square foot medical campus even in the event of prolonged grid outages.

Even with rising water levels in the Brays Bayou and other areas around the CHP system, the energy infrastructure operated without interruption through the storm. Although the CHP system was designed primarily to increase energy efficiency and reduce energy costs for the medical center, the events of Hurricane Harvey showed that CHP was also a crucial part of the emergency preparedness plan and helped staff at the Texas Medical Center focus on patient care without fear of losing power. The Texas Medical Center includes medical research and care facilities like the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Children’s Hospital, and the 16 other institutions.

Finish Blog Here…