by ERIC DEAN, General President, IW
President Trump recently directed Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take immediate steps to prevent further closures of the nation’s coal and nuclear power plants. The directive comes as the Trump administration plans a regulatory lifeline requiring grid operators to buy power from coal and nuclear plants at risk of retirement. The plan includes a “Strategic Electric Generation Reserve,” which would shore up U.S. domestic energy reserves in case of an emergency.
Current U.S. consumers benefit from a reliable, resilient and cost-effective electric supply portfolio that employs a diverse set of generating technologies and fuel sources. The electric reliability watchdog, the North American Electric Reliability Corp., observed, “Premature retirements of fuel-secure baseload generating stations reduces resilience to fuel supply disruptions.” Impending retirements of fuel-secure power facilities could lead to a rapid depletion of a critical part of the nation’s energy mix, weakening the resilience of our power grid and capacity to prevent blackouts.
Climate change is undeniable, and we must continue our efforts to make a smooth transition to a renewable energy future.
The construction industry is already feeling the shockwaves of the disruption. It takes a highly specialized set of skills and expertise to work on power plants, whether coal, natural gas or renewable energy. This specialized construction workforce built the U.S. power grid and supporting infrastructure decades ago and continues to maintain them. Premature retirement of coal plants will dislocate a specialized energy construction workforce before we have a chance to redirect and prepare it for the future power generation grid.
Rapid retirement of coal plants will result in an immediate negative impact on local economies, with thousands of people losing their jobs and livelihoods almost overnight. It will leave coal-based communities and businesses across the country completely unprepared. The U.S. power grid and supporting infrastructure are not equipped for a rapid transition away from coal and nuclear power. They were built decades ago and designed primarily for transmitting electricity from large, centralized (mostly coal) power plants.
First, we need to modernize them to accommodate a renewable energy future before we make a transition to clean energy. We need to prepare our specialized craft workers who build and maintain energy plants to seamlessly adapt to a modernized energy generation system without losing a large portion of these veterans to the premature, rapid retirement of coal plants.
Much of the retiring coal fleet is being replaced by natural gas. But both coal and gas generation are necessary for our grid system to handle sudden demand fluctuations and extreme weather events right now. Natural gas plants have a role in a balanced and reliable energy grid, but they are not exactly a clean, climate change cure-all.
While moving to an all-renewable energy grid sounds desirable, we must keep our eyes open about the realities of attempting an immediate transfer. Solar and wind energy are intermittent and fluctuate based on sun and wind conditions. Weatherdependent, intermittent renewables lack the flexibility needed to meet daily and seasonal demand. They cannot provide the steady baseload power needed to ensure grid resilience in the immediate future.
While there has been tremendous growth in wind and solar energy, they account for only 7 percent of U.S. electricity. Though there’s great potential in renewables, even with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan still in place, wind and solar are projected to account for only 15 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030. The nation’s power grid is not ready for an immediate and complete transition to renewable energy.
It’s easy to lose sight of the real issues in the simplistic debate between those who are either for or against renewable energy. There’s no doubt the nation must look to a renewable energy future, but it must happen in a sensible way. The specialized building trades support a clean energy future. Ironworkers and their contractors work not only on natural gas and coal plants, but on high-profile wind and solar energy projects. But we understand the immediate need for a balanced energy mix to ensure resilience of our power grid.
As technological changes including grid flexibility, efficiency gains and breakthrough in energy storage take place, renewables may overcome the issue of intermittency and become a viable solution in the future. Until then, we must slow down the premature retirement of coal plants, which disrupts the energy mix the nation desperately needs in order to ensure grid resilience right now.
For more information, visit www.iron workers.org or call (202) 383-4800.
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