Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Morgan Griffith on the Deep Freeze and Coal

As Virginia readers remember, last week found us in the deep freeze. Temperatures hovered below freezing for more than three days without relief. Heat pumps set to 68 degrees Fahrenheit weren't warming houses even to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. People's natural instinct was to crank up that thermostat. Which, of course, put a big drain on electrical power plants. Everyone living in an all-electric home was miserable.

Me? I forced myself to get comfortable with an indoor temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit, before the Big Chill. I was able to maintain that temperature in my "warm" office room with a small electric heater--and I went into the store and insisted on one that runs only on the 1000-watt degree setting, because 1500 watts generates a power surge in my office. The cats were out of the cold in the mud room, heated to about 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit by the wood stove. (Yes, the filter cap on the chimney and metal liner inside the chimney cost some time and trouble to install, but they've actually made the wood stove more efficient.) My water line started to freeze, but didn't break. For which I thanked Providence. And preparation. I encourage readers to defend their right to provide themselves with alternative heat sources.

Anyway, now that I've shared that (I'm sure readers who are related to me wanted to know), here is Congressman Griffith's message concerning the deep freeze, pasted from his E-Newsletter:

"Coal Keeps the Heat On and Food on the Table
Much of the nation – including our region and areas further south – has been dealing with frigid weather.  Several energy companies nationwide asked customers to reduce their electricity consumption for periods of time in order to decrease demand and reduce the potential for power outages.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) asked their distributors of electricity for voluntary, temporary reductions in energy use.  Some distributors requested their customers, including residential users, reduce their use of electricity on the coldest night so far this year.  I must question TVA’s decision to have already closed 8 of their coal-fired power plants.

In fairness, Martinsville’s Electric Department made a similar request of its customers.

I can’t help but think back to January 2014.  According to an October 2014 Reuters article about a report issued by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), “The U.S. power industry survived its toughest test in years in January [2014] when lights and heaters stayed on even as the polar vortex swept over the country.  But it was a close run thing…”

In addition to equipment failures such as iced up transformers, frozen valves, etc., Reuters noted, “…[M]ost new power generating units have been built to burn natural gas.  Unlike coal or oil, gas is not usually stored on site, so generators rely on real-time deliveries from the gas pipeline network. … But with gas consumption also hitting record levels, generators were unable to contract for sufficient volumes and arrange for delivery through an already congested pipeline network.  The increase in gas-fired generation has introduced an unanticipated and dangerous link between the gas and electricity systems - with the risk of common failure.”

Reuters continued, “According to NERC, gas supply problems led to losses of 620 MW of generation in the Midwest, 3,300 MW in the Northeast, 11,000 MW in the Middle Atlantic states, 2,000 MW in the Southeast and around 2,000 MW in Texas.”

In spite of controversial routes, energy companies are under pressure to build new natural gas pipelines, partly because of the Administration’s policies on coal.  While I am not advocating any route, current natural gas infrastructure clearly is insufficient.

You may recall that, in Russell County, Appalachian Power is converting two of the three generating units of the Clinch River Plant from coal-fired to natural gas-fired, shutting down the third unit.  And American Electric Power’s plant in Giles County’s Glen Lyn is scheduled to shut down by the end of this year because of new regulations.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers President Edwin Hill noted in a Wall Street Journal piece last summer that, “Ninety percent of the plants slated to close due to the [Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standards] rule were needed to provide power during the polar vortex and other periods of severe weather last winter.”

“Is the EPA willing to gamble that we won't have another harsh winter in the next five years?” Hill asked.

That’s not a gamble I am willing to take.  Some may argue that calls for reduced energy consumption are rare, but these calls have now been made two winters in a row.

One of the most reliable sources of energy is coal, and the infrastructure necessary for dependable, affordable coal-generated power is more than 100 years old.  You put the coal on a truck or a train.