The Trump administration is playing up the resurgence of King Coal during the two-week deep freeze as proof positive of the need for coal as part of the nation’s energy mix, while trying to put a positive spin on Monday’s defeat of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s plan to subsidize coal and nuclear plants.
Coal provided more than 40 percent of the electricity in the frozen East and Midwest, with nuclear the second-biggest power provider and natural gas number three.
Even as temperatures warmed up Tuesday, coal use still hovered above 50 percent in some parts of the country, pushing out nuclear and natural gas in the region controlled by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, the second largest energy market in the country.
Further East, in the region overseen by PJM Interconnection, coal’s contribution was lower than it was last week by more than 10,000 megawatts an hour generated, but it was still beating out the power output of both nuclear and natural gas power plants.
Natural gas in recent years has surpassed coal as the biggest provider of power, driven by cheap prices and plenty of supply as a result of the fracking boom.
PJM said Tuesday that the recent deep freeze brought three of its 10 highest demand days for electricity over the last four years. The grid operator said climate modeling and adequate planning helped it avoid any loss of power.
The surge in coal use didn't help the industry at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which on Monday unanimously rejected Perry's plan to reward coal and nuclear power plants for their ability to store fuel on-site. The commissioners did call on the grid operators it oversees to begin a discussion on the state of grid resilience.
On Tuesday, members of the administration were on Capitol Hill trying to play up that part as a win for the administration and its goals to keep coal and nuclear plants humming.
“FERC responded yesterday with the unanimous decision to direct regional transmission organizations and independent system operators to pro-actively evaluate the resilience of the bulk power system,” said Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette before a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday.
“We were encouraged by this action, and we look forward to working with FERC and the individual commissioners on this important issue,” he said.
“America’s electric grid is strong and reliable because it is powered by a diverse mix of energy sources,” Brouillette said. “These sources work together to mitigate disruptions and increase resiliency when periods of extreme temperatures, like the one we just recently faced, effects supply and demand.”
Meanwhile, the coal industry is livid about the FERC ruling, especially in the wake of the extreme cold.
“This is a bureaucratic cop-out,” said coal mining magnate Bob Murray, CEO of the mining firm Murray Energy and an avid Trump supporter. “I fear that we will now immediately observe the announcement of further decommissioning of nuclear and coal-fired electricity generation,” which he warned would prompt electricity prices to rise.
A number of other trade groups warned of impending coal and nuclear plant closures without the Perry plan, expressing "disappointment" with FERC’s decision to reject the administration’s proposal.
Detractors of the Perry proposal said the deep freeze showed that the FERC-overseen markets worked as they should as demand increased.
“Data from independent sources such as the regional grid operators does not support boastful claims that any one fuel saved the day," the Electric Power Supply Association said in a statement a few days before the FERC decision. "All fuels have played a pivotal role. Today’s electricity markets are designed to ensure a fuel-neutral approach to achieve a reliable, resilient, efficient and competitive power system.”
EPSA is part of a large coalition that includes strange bedfellows from the oil industry to solar and wind companies. The group made the statement as pressure to show the value of nuclear and coal plants rose to a fevered pitch during the cold snap last week.