He did it! After being lobbied by foreign leaders, the Pope, and even members of his own family, President Donald Trump took the courageous step of leading America out from the clutches of the horrendously negotiated Paris climate change accords.
At his June 1 Rose Garden announcement, the President declared: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris. I promised I would exit or renegotiate any deal that doesn’t serve America’s interests.”
As this bold and dramatic step dominates the national and global news, it may soon be sharing the stage with a lesser known issue of potentially greater import: the reliability of our nation’s electricity grid. With the grid at near capacity and public policies diminishing its critical resilience, it wouldn’t take much for our nation to plunge rapidly into a new Dark Ages of systemic instability and a pattern of widespread brownouts for as far as the eye can see (or not see).
As unimaginable as it may seem today, that is exactly the dystopian scenario America would face without a reliable electrical grid. While Thomas Edison is best known as the inventor of the electric light, it was his personal secretary, Samuel Insull, who used his own business acumen to make cheap electricity a reality for most of America. Since then, we Americans enjoy the benefits of something that most people could not even imagine: reliable and cheap electric power.
How fortunate are we? In spite of leading the world in energy use per capita, the United States has only suffered two massive blackouts, one in 1965 and the other in 2003. Otherwise, we have been free from persistent, region-wide outages, unlike other nations, like India, with much less reliable grids.
Yet, those days could be coming to an end rapidly — and not due to the reasons one might suspect, such as terrorism or cyberattacks. The greatest dangers posed to the grid’s reliability arise from misguided public policies — particularly those replacing traditionally dependable sources of energy, like coal and nuclear, with unreliable renewable sources, including wind and solar.
Since the advent of modern power plants, coal has generated more electricity than any other power source — followed at various times by hydroelectricity, natural gas, then nuclear power. However, since the Obama Administration launched its war on coal, coal as a percentage of net electricity generation has declined from 49 percent in 2007 to 30 percent in 2016 (trailing natural gas at 34 percent), according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA).
But these allocations actually represent a smaller piece of a smaller pie.
According to EIA data, starting in 2007, coal production dropped by 768 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) to 1.23 trillion kWh in 2016.
Nuclear for its part has gone from 19 percent of the grid in 2007 to 19.7 percent today. However the “rise” is only because it’s a relatively greater chunk of a smaller pie. In 2007, nuclear produced 806.4 billion kWh for the year and in 2016 it produced 805.3 billion kWh, according to EIA.
Largely a result of the coal plant closures, overall electricity generation in the U.S. has dropped from 4.005 trillion kWh in 2007 to 3.92 trillion kWh in 2016, while end use has only decreased from 3.89 trillion kWh to just 3.853 trillion kWh.
Consider that, we have not increased electricity production one iota in a decade. No wonder the economy is so flat.
The difference between electricity generation and end use, just 67 billion kWh of spare capacity, has dropped a whopping 42 percent in a single decade — leading to legitimate concerns that our ability to supply enough electricity to keep up with demand could be compromised, making future brownouts a real possibility.
Interestingly, while residential electricity use was increasing the past decade, industrial usage was collapsing, from 1.03 trillion kWh in 2007 to 936 billion kWh in 2016, a drop of 91 billion kWh. Had industrial electrical use remained the same as in 2007, national usage would have exceeded grid production last year.
This predicament is further complicated by the fact that, as of 2016, 451 coal-burning power plants in 37 states were closing or converting simply due to EPA regulations. Among the states hardest hit by these plant closing or conversions include Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
In his statement praising President Trump for exiting the Paris climate accord, Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government reiterated the importance of policies that help, not hurt workers in these states: “Fortunately, President Trump has not forgotten that it was working families — in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and across the country in our industrial base — who depend on there being real, good-paying jobs in order to make ends meet.”
While the Obama Administration and its EPA were busy ravaging coal-producing states with overregulation, it simultaneously subsidized its favorite green industries, like wind and solar energy, with corporate tax credits. This corporate favoritism — government picking winners and losers — ignored the fact that neither wind nor solar produces the consistent baseload power needed to sustain our electricity demands. Indeed, bad public policy presents the greatest threat to the reliability of our electricity grid.
With a new administration in charge, a change in direction could be afoot. In April, Energy Department (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry ordered a study evaluating to what extent regulatory burdens, subsidies, and tax policies “are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants.”
Perry’s order noted that grid experts “have expressed concerns about the erosion of critical baseload resources” and “that regulatory burdens introduced by previous administrations that were designed to decrease coal-fired power generation have destroyed jobs and economic growth, and threaten to undercut the performance of the grid well into the future.” The Secretary also asked whether wholesale energy markets adequately compensate some of the attributes that coal and nuclear plants bring to the table strengthening grid resilience.
The study, scheduled for completion by mid-June, is likely to reveal what many of us already know: America’s electricity needs and the stability of the grid cannot be met by unreliable renewable energy sources and must be delivered by traditionally dependable sources of fossil fuels. Now that we no longer have Paris, keep your eyes peeled on the stability of the grid. Nothing less than the future of our nation’s energy security is at stake.
Peter Hong is a contributing reporter at Americans for Limited Government.