Georgia Voices Reiterate Value of U.S. Nuclear Leadership

After years of interacting with members of the public and policymakers about American energy policy, there aren’t many questions I haven’t heard. Many casual observers of energy inquire about the future of traditional energy sources, which prompts some discussion on my part about the importance of reliability and balance. Others ask with puzzlement why the U.S. is dragging its feet on renewable power sources, an area of significant misinformation I am glad to correct and clarify.

Almost invariably, however, there is a question about nuclear energy. Even on Saturday, after I made a presentation at my alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalist vision for America and the role of the individual in making our nation better (the topic of my undergraduate research nearly twenty years ago), the second question from the audience was about nuclear power. It was a question about nuclear power I am not normally asked: “What happens if we abandon nuclear power?”

If you have read PACE’s regular commentary on the state of American nuclear power, my answer would not have been surprising. I reinforced the need for a balanced energy portfolio and underscored the importance of sources such as nuclear power and fossil fuels capable of running around the clock with limited disruption. I clarified the role of nuclear power as often the source first dispatched by grid managers, because of its low operational cost. Finally, I dispelled what I consider to be irrational concerns over spent nuclear fuel storage and public safety hazards. Hopefully, my response laid the predicate for a better understanding of nuclear’s role in the American energy landscape.

In light of that question on Saturday, I was intrigued just two days later to see a very insightful piece in Forbes from Drs. David Gattie and Scott Jones from Georgia. Dr. Gattie is an associate professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia who conducts solar power research, while Dr. Jones serves as director of the Center for International Trade and Security in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. Their piece, entitled “An America Without Nuclear Power,” strikes at the heart of the question posed to me over the weekend in Hattiesburg. What does an energy future without nuclear power look like?

Gattie and Jones explain that some opponents of nuclear power contend that commercial nuclear power in the U.S. has no future, arguing instead for a “chimerical renewable-energy-only economy,” as the authors put it. Gattie and Jones disagree with that contention, as I do, pointing out that “a U.S. exit from nuclear, whether intentional or by market attrition, would threaten U.S. national security in at least three ways.” According to the authors, abandoning nuclear power would A) widen the knowledge gap on nuclear development between us and the world’s economic, industrial, and military powers, B) create a dangerous dependence on intermittent power sources, which threatens disruptions to power supply, and C) abdicate the role of U.S. leadership in the global nuclear community.

As Drs. Gattie and Jones make clear, “State-owned nuclear companies in Russia and China have taken the lead in offering nuclear power plants to emerging countries, usually with finance and fuel services.” Do we really want to give the reins of the commercial nuclear power sector worldwide over to the Russians and Chinese? Doing so would seem to carry with it a number of geopolitical and national security implications that are difficult to ignore.

“This is not an issue of nuclear versus renewables—both should occupy space in the U.S. portfolio. This is an issue of national security and global leadership, and U.S. policymakers should work aggressively with U.S. industry to ensure that nuclear power remains viable,” the authors write. “An America without nuclear power is a less secure America and a globally less relevant America. Perhaps more sobering, an America without nuclear power is a world with an America that has limited or no institutional knowledge of nuclear science and engineering—and that is a world we’ve never known.”

Well said. Hopefully, the right audiences are listening.


Grid Reliability and Resilience Come Into Focus

Late last week, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered his department to determine whether fundamental changes to the U.S. power grid, including the reduced use of coal-fired power, could affect the reliability of electricity. PACE has written often in recent years about threats to the availability of power posed by the closure of baseload power plants nationwide.


In an April 14th memo obtained by Bloomberg News, Perry underscores a number of the same concerns, asking department officials to determine whether federal policies toward renewable resources are accelerating the closure of coal and nuclear power plants and whether the “erosion” of baseload power sources could lead to a less stable grid.

“We are blessed as a nation to have an abundance of domestic energy resources, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric, all of which provide affordable baseload power and contribute to a stable, reliable and resilient grid,” Perry wrote in the memo to his chief of staff. But in recent years, grid experts have “highlighted the diminishing diversity of our nation’s electric generation mix and what that could mean for baseload power and grid resilience.”

The news comes just days after PJM, the nation’s largest grid operator, released a study that found that too much reliance on natural gas could threaten the resilience of its system, which spans all or part of thirteen states including coal-heavy states such as Kentucky, West Virginia, and Missouri.

Read the PJM Report Here

During times of crisis such as a cybersecurity attack, an extreme weather event such as a Polar Vortex, or a pipeline disruption, it is critical that the grid has access to a variety of baseload power sources. PJM’s report warns against too much reliance on natural gas for power production and highlights the importance of maintaining coal as part of the energy mix. The resilience of the grid, PJM reasons, is best served by large shares of fossil fuel options combined with other complementary sources.

As the Department of Energy and organizations such as PJM continue to weigh the best approach to ensuring grid reliability and resilience, we hope that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will step up to look seriously at the future of the grid. Unless we fully acknowledge the risks associated with diminishing the role of reliable energy sources such as coal and nuclear power, we continue to run the risk of jeopardizing the grid that today serves American families and industry so well.


Coal's Steady Comeback

While good news for coal country has been hard to come by in recent years, new developments could be changing the outlook for the industry. Buoyed by the election of a new administration and the prospect of regulatory changes, there is a degree of optimism about the direction of American coal.

The optimism about coal’s future has also been lifted by the emergence from bankruptcy of Peabody Energy, the largest U.S. mining company. Peabody Chief Executive Officer Glenn Kellow credits President Trump for taking action to declare the importance of coal to the U.S. energy mix. Kellow says the administration’s policies may actually postpone the closure of up to 50 gigawatts of coal-fired power plant capacity.

Competition from inexpensive natural gas and increased regulations on the industry caused coal production in the U.S. to drop by nearly 40 percent under President Barrack Obama. In his first months in office, President Trump has already begun reversing some of the regulations on coal, including rolling back the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and lifting a moratorium on mining on federal land. The President has also promised to bring back coal jobs, although some in the mining industry remain skeptical.

“It’s not going to bring back jobs right away,” Robert Murray, the CEO of miner Murray Energy Corp., said of Trump’s initiatives in an interview last month.

A medium-term outlook seems somewhat optimistic, though. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal production increased by almost 35 percent in the third quarter of 2016 and is expected to have grown even more in the fourth quarter, although figures won’t be published until next month.The increases in production should lead to a growth in coal jobs, as many of the 33,000 people who lost their jobs between 2014 and 2016 are expected to be hired back.

More good news for the coal industry is that natural gas production has been falling steadily over the past year and prices have been steadily increasing, making coal more cost-competitive. Power producers have responded in some cases by switching back to using coal instead of gas. In fact, coal fired power plants operated 59 percent of the time in January 2017 compared with 56 percent the previous January. Exports of coal also increased in the fourth quarter of last year to 19.3 million tons, up from 12.6 in the third quarter. That’s the highest level since 2015.

The coal industry still faces many obstacles, but recent developments have left many feeling more optimistic than they have in years. Hopefully, this important industry continues its comeback, as coal-fired power production will remain a vital part of the world’s energy mix for years to come.