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Clean Energy, Not More Coal, Better for Health and the Grid

May 12, 2017

The Trump Administration continues to promote its “coal above all” mantra. Department of Energy Secretary Perry claimed last month that wind and solar power are undermining power markets and grid reliability, even though experience says otherwise. Now comes Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Pruitt, warning that we need more coal power to back up natural gas. He says that on-site coal piles are less vulnerable to terrorist attacks than gas pipelines.

But Pruitt’s concerns are a red herring. Coal is losing out to other sources of energy in markets and policy, so the Administration is falling back on bogeymen – reliability and terrorism – to rescue it.

Coal is losing out in the market

Coal is in sharp decline (see chart below), mainly because it’s losing out in the marketplace. Cheap gas and declining power demand are the two top reasons for coal’s fall, coupled with growth in low-cost renewable energy.


Coal has its own fuel security problems

Coal rail junctions and lines can be disrupted, coal plants themselves are vulnerable to attack, and no grid reliability standard requires coal or any other specific resource to “back up” the system. Instead, the focus of the power grid operator is on deploying the least-cost combination of resources to meet consumer demand at any given moment. Wind and solar are more secure from a fuel security perspective because they don’t have a vulnerable fuel supply; terrorists can’t blow up the sun and wind.

Redundancy is defense #1

The design of the power grid takes into account the risk of many different types of disruptions, including physical attacks. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the entity responsible for developing grid reliability standards, explains in a recent report on threats to the grid that “the redundant design of the bulk power system provides a high degree of inherent resilience and protection against many threats.”

Much of the work to improve grid reliability standards over the decades has involved building more redundancy into the power grid so that it can absorb shocks to its system. If a power line goes down, the electricity is routed around it to other lines in the network. (For grid geeks, check out these rules for reducing blackout risks when power lines fail).  To protect against grid failures from loss of power plants, some plants are on standby, ready to inject more electricity into the system if another plant trips off line. Grid regions also have supply reserves ready to meet higher than expected demand. Those reserves would be available if a terrorist attack knocked out multiple power plants.

Reliability hinges on more mundane risks like weather and trees

The power grid is enormously complex, which can create vulnerabilities. It’s the world’s largest machine, with many tens of thousands of moving parts: power plants, transmission and distribution lines, transformers, substations, circuit breakers, control centers, and the list goes on. A lot could go wrong with the grid, although most threats are more mundane than pernicious. Extreme weather and falling trees top the list of widespread blackout causes (see chart below), and most blackouts occur at the local distribution system level rather than at the high-power transmission system level.

Source: DOE QER 1.2, Fig. 4-9

Source: DOE QER 1.2, Fig. 4-9

But the reality is that if parts of the high-power grid fail for any reason, all power plants connected to that part of the grid could disconnect from the grid, regardless of their fuel source.

Cyber threats are a higher concern

As we are learning yet again from the recent “WannaCry” cyberattack on computers and systems worldwide, our Internet-connected life is vulnerable. From a threat perspective, cyber attacks on grid control systems and substations could do much more damage than attacks on individual power plants, pipelines, or transmission lines. The thousands of power plants are connected with more than 200,000 miles of transmission lines, many centralized dispatch centers, and millions of digital controls. An attack on control systems or even a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse could overload and short-circuit these systems and cause widespread damage. Early this year the Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review 1.2 summarized the attack risks and highlighted the need to increase defenses against cyberattacks:

Source: DOE QER 1.2, Fig. 4-8

Source: DOE QER 1.2, Fig. 4-8

NERC and the grid operators are aware of these vulnerabilities and are working on solutions to increase defenses to cyberattacks. (Check out this Marketplace story where industry experts also prioritize cyber risks as the real threat, and largely dismiss Pruitt’s claims.)

Attacks on pipelines are unlikely to lead to widespread blackouts

Pipelines are vulnerable as infrastructure, and reducing their use would reduce risk. But a pipeline attack itself is unlikely to lead to massive blackouts. As the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explained in a 2013 analysis, “the natural gas network has few single points of failure that can lead to a system-wide propagating failure. There are a large number of wells, storage is relatively widespread, the transmission system can continue to operate at high pressure even with the failure of half of the compressors, and the distribution network can run unattended and without power.” Of course, accelerating deployment of clean renewable resources with no fuel security issues would reduce both risk and pollution.

Focus on solutions, not fallacies

It’s a strange day when the head of EPA – the agency tasked with protecting our health and environment – promotes coal. At least Pruitt’s open about his bias; one of his staff told a coal industry event in Florida last week that EPA was actively “looking for opportunities” to help coal.

Instead of wasting breath on red herrings, let’s work on achievable solutions to grid threats. Shouldn’t we instead focus on strengthening cyberattack defenses? We also should continue to expand energy efficiency and demand response. And we need to deploy more rooftop solar, storage, and other distributed energy resources that reduce reliance on larger grid targets without emitting hazardous pollution.

In short, coal does nothing special to address the biggest causes of reliability problems and most relevant security threats, we certainly don’t need it to back up gas, and cleaner and more affordable solutions exist to protecting our grid.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.