Winter Energy Supply Crunch Highlights Coal’s Importance

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Natural gas shortages have wreaked havoc on global energy prices in recent weeks. While the U.S. has mostly been shielded from the kinds of skyrocketing prices that Europe and Asia have faced, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects energy costs to rise significantly this winter. Power grid operators are responding to the challenge by looking to a fuel many policymakers might consider a part of the past: coal. 

PJM Interconnection, the largest U.S. power grid operator, took action to ensure its coal-fired power plants have at least a ten-day supply of coal on site. The shift means the plants will be able to run for several days if the region were to experience an extreme winter weather event, such as the one that took out the Texas power grid last winter. 

“Our top priority at PJM is ensuring a reliable electric grid,” says Michael Bryson, PJM’s senior vice president of operations.

For a number of reasons, natural gas has surpassed coal-fired power as our nation’s primary energy source over the past decade. Its abundance and low price have made it the fuel of choice for many power providers. These low prices have, in turn, kept energy costs in check for American families while helping the U.S. to cut carbon dioxide emissions, since natural gas emits about half the carbon emissions as coal. In addition, natural gas has the rare ability to ramp up and down quickly, making it the perfect complement to intermittent renewable energy like wind and solar. 

With all the benefits of natural gas use, it might seem justified that some policymakers believe coal is dead. Not so fast though! As we wrote back in 2019, coal is still an essential part of our energy mix. While coal’s use has declined in the U.S. in recent years, it hasn’t gone away and isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. 

EIA says coal power generation is rising this year because of “significantly higher natural gas prices and relatively stable coal prices.” However, the agency continued by saying the rise of coal generation in the United States “will most likely not continue.” 

That’s only speculation, of course, and there’s ample reason to believe EIA could be wrong. While coal use has diminished over the years, it is still one of the most reliable energy sources we have. Even when we stray away from it, coal keeps the lights on when the supply of affordable and reliable electricity gets tight. Advances in developing technologies such as Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) will allow power generators to continue using reliable coal-fired power and meet carbon reduction targets. 

This winter’s energy shift demonstrates how important it is not to place all of our energy eggs in one basket. Without coal, American families could have found themselves in the cold this winter. Thankfully, that’s not likely to happen because coal is still integral to keeping the domestic energy supply affordable, reliable, and resilient.