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Polar Vortex Shows We Need More Efficiency, Wind, and Solar, Not Coal or Gas

February 5, 2014

By Mark Kresowik, Eastern Region Deputy Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign

The East Coast was hit with record lows in the last month, and I’m not just talking about the Broncos’ Super Bowl performance.  As our heaters kicked it up a notch, gas and power prices spiked across the region.  That was bad for our pocketbooks and our health, but the lights didn’t go out except in South Carolina, where the culprit was an unreliable coal plant.  What the polar vortex showed was that we can save money and avoid blackouts with more energy efficiency, demand response, wind, and solar, not more coal.

New England lights the way

Coal plants can be intermittent and unreliable, especially when the temperature drops.  The South Carolina experience was not the first time coal plants unable to deal with freezing conditions were primarily responsible for a blackout.  New England is the first region in the country to take some of the problems posed by existing generators head on, and the electric grid operator has proposed one of the most innovative proposals in the country, rewarding actual reliability performance by system participants.  FERC should now move quickly to help that region ensure that electric capacity resources actually deliver what we need when demand goes up.

New England states also have taken a few of the right steps to hedge against volatile natural gas prices.  Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is putting in place polices to guarantee increased solar power, and worked with Connecticut to lock in new low cost contracts for wind power in the region.  Those states also join Vermont and Rhode Island in the top 10 states in energy efficiency achievement.  Taken together, those investments will help reduce the region’s increasing reliance on natural gas when prices spike.  The Governors can take further steps to bring more wind and solar online, and New Hampshire and Maine should catch up to their peers on efficiency.

New York falling behind on hedging against gas price spikes

With the Indian Point nuclear facility and obsolete coal plants potentially coming offline, the state is facing an increase in dependence on natural gas.  While Governor Cuomo’s administration is moving forward with ground-breaking solar policies and improving energy efficiency, wind power is lagging behind despite the state’s access to high-value wind resources along the East Coast.  The Governor recently announced subsidies for the pricey use of natural gas at the Dunkirk power plant, and the Public Service Commission has even been considering allowing the dirty and broken Danskammer coal plant to start back up again.  New York should move expediently to implement wind contracts similar to what their neighbors to the East have done, as well as ordering the transmission planning and upgrades needed to allow Cayuga, Somerset, Huntley, and other coal plants to reliably retire.  Otherwise the power price and pollution spikes we’ve seen in recent weeks will become a permanent fixture of New York’s economy for the foreseeable future.

FERC approves PJM’s move in the wrong direction

Last week, in one of FERC’s biggest decisions during our on-going winter experience, it (unfortunately) approved PJM’s misguided proposal to undermine the same demand response resources that performed admirably when power demand surged.  PJM’s plan, which was not supported by many of PJM’s own members, is like replacing the stellar Seattle defense with the 2013 Dallas unit halfway through the Super Bowl.  We’re going to need all of the efficiency and demand response we can get and FERC needs to reconsider its decision.

By driving more market innovation like what New England has proposed, FERC can help us pave the way for a reliable, affordable, and clean energy future throughout the country.  Governors and state regulators can also make sure companies have what they need to deploy wind, solar, and energy efficiency to curb over-reliance on volatile natural gas prices.  We can move beyond dirty and obsolete coal to keep our businesses going and furnaces on, even when it’s bitterly cold outside.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Sustainable FERC Project or Natural Resources Defense Council.