How Coal Saved the Grid in January

The 2017-18 Bomb Cyclone

The twelve days between Dec. 27, 2017, and Jan. 8 this year saw one of the longest and most intense deep freezes ever recorded for the East Coast. Snow, ice and frigid temperatures plunged much of the United States into winter misery for a seemingly endless period.

The so-called “bomb cyclone” also put the East Coast electric grid under intense stress. The period of Jan. 4-6 accounted for three of the top ten winter demand days in the history of PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Virginia is a part. Electricity consumption and output surged 21% over average daily loads.

Were it not for the ability to fire up old coal and oil power plants, many of which are scheduled for phasing out, the regional grid would have been overloaded and the system would have been hit with widespread blackouts, concludes a report, “Reliability, Resilience and Oncoming Wave of Retiring Baseload Units,” issued last month by the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

The Lab’s analysis of the PJM system found that coal generation surged from 20 gigawatts to 51 gigawatts of supplied capacity during the bomb cyclone. By contrast, nuclear power, which typically runs all out with little variability throughout the year, provided no surge capacity.

Natural gas generation averaged about 25 gigawatts, but its surge capacity was limited by pipeline constraints and the necessity of competing with gas as a home-heating fuel during the freeze. As a percentage of total output, gas actually fell. Emphasizes the report: “It was coal, and secondarily fuel oil, fired primarily in fuel switching natural gas units, that provided the electricity crucial for keeping natural gas-fired residential furnace fans operating during the extreme cold of the BC.”

And renewables? Renewable output declined. That’s what happens when clouds and snow blot out solar output. As it happened, wind power declined as well. “Intermittent generating sources experienced a significant decline nearly inverse to growth in demand,” states the report. “As the storm settled over the Mid-Atlantic area, PJM saw decreased output from solar and wind resources.”


Coal, the fuel that everyone loves to hate, saved the day. Had the coal capacity not been available, the report stated, “a 9-18 GW shortfall would have developed, depending on assumed imports and generation outages, leading to system collapse.”

Let that sink in: “Leading to system collapse.”

Should I repeat that for you?

The study authors fear for the future. They write:

The 30 GW of coal that ramped up to meet the surge in PJM load includes the units most likely to retire due to insufficient market support, given those units were not running at baseload levels before the event. As more of these units retire, the ability of the system to respond to extreme events with reliance, let alone economically, deteriorates. To maintain the resilience seen in this event, any retiring units that were dispatched during the event would have to be replaced with other resilient generation sources and their associated infrastructure (e.g. pipelines, transmission).

Bacon’s bottom line: Let me spell out what this means for energy policy in Virginia. Current regulatory policy is hostile to coal-generated electric power, and could become even more hostile if Virginia joins the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Powerful environmental and activist groups backed by out-of-state money want to phase out nuclear power by blocking the bid of Dominion Energy Virginia to re-license four nuclear units in the years ahead, and they want to halt the construction of any more gas-fired units. And, although it appears to be too late to do so, they opposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. In effect, they want to build a grid in which in gains from energy efficiency plus increases in intermittent wind and solar power replace all coal and nuclear and account for any incremental increase in demand growth.

If we assume advances in the economics of battery storage, a renewables-heavy grid can be made to work just fine under routine circumstances. In theory, massive banks of batteries can store excess solar wind power to shift electric loads to times of the day when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Building all those batteries would be expensive, but it could be done. But it’s one thing to store enough electric power to handle daily load shifts. It’s another to build enough batteries to provide power for a 12-day storm system. It can’t be done. And when the electricity runs out, not only do the 40% of households who rely upon electricity to heat their homes start freezing, so do the households that use natural gas because there’s no electricity to run the fans and blowers.

Massive storm systems like the bomb cyclone and the Polar Vortex of several years ago occur only once every few years. But occur they do. And the energy mix of our electric grid must be built around that reality. Far from increasing resilience — the buzzword of the day — we could be laying the groundwork for self-inflicted disaster.

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27 responses to “How Coal Saved the Grid in January

  1. A fine and very important article, Jim has written. It’s my sense from this article that the fragility of the system, and cumulative threats to the system, including those leading to a system collapse, and possibly a self inflicted disaster would well rise over the short and mid term or longer, before new technologies could reliably fill the gap, and this could be so even after the completion of the pipelines. And this likely does not take into account terror threats, and totally unexpected events no one yet foresees.

  2. The first thing we need to figure out is, if this report has merit? Makes sense to me, but I am thinking some green groups may be taking issue with content in the report.

    The next question becomes, if true, what actions are needed that are not already being done? I do not think coal makes great long term sense as a stand-by power source for short term cold spells – but I could be wrong. Coal is more base-load like nuclear. Natural gas best fits the variable need. As the new pipelines are completed, there should be better availability.

    Then the next question, where to build out the power plants of the future? There is an opportunity for Va. to play a role there, but if we join RGGI we are basically committing to a carbon-free future for Virginia. So we may choose to let WV, PA, OH, NC etc. pick up the slack and export power to us. I suppose it does not matter too much what states build out the power plants.

  3. Agreed, coal ist kaput. But it is obvious we need gas in the mix, and I am open to extending some or all of the nukes depending on the economic analysis. But in 20 years the warming kicks in, right? Standing out in the April snow flurry this morning I asked the wife, where the hell is that global warming when you need it! Then it will be about AC and massive dikes and pumps along the shoreline….Unless RGGI magically stops those processes….

  4. I’d be curious to know if all the nukes were up and running. did we have our regular generation or did we have some casualties that required the coal plants to come online? To some extent it don’t really matter the point was we did not have enough generation and coal was needed. This is another question with respect to Renewables and what happens when they are not available especially in cold weather in addition to nighttime and cloudy weather.

  5. Well, I got to thinking about that phrase “system collapse” and how it sounded overly dramatic so.. I wanted to see just how objective the authors were and … not so much:

    ” The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is a U.S. national laboratory under the Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy.[1] NETL focuses on applied research for the clean production and use of domestic energy resources. NETL performs research and development on the supply, efficiency, and environmental constraints of producing and using fossil energy resources, while maintaining their affordability”

    Now who is in charge of the Dept of Energy? Rick Perry and Donald Trump.

    I think I smell a rat…. AND I think Jim Bacon SHOULD have smelled that same rat!

    • You know nothing about the authors, but you find an oblique link to Trump and Perry and that’s enough to discredit the report? What do you say about the people who wrote studies when Obama was president? Did you smell a rat then?

      No, I didn’t think so.

      How about just evaluating the report on its merits? I’m pretty sure that if TomH comes back with a response to the report findings, the response will be based upon facts and perspectives that were missing from the report — not a backhanded insult to the integrity of the authors.

      • The authors of the report WORK for an agency whose purpose is to promote fossil fuels.

        Part of the “merit” of ANY report from ANY organization is whether or not they write a “report” that is truly objective and free from their own policy perspective.

        In other words – the authors have a built-in conflict of interest – which SHOULD have been NOTED at the front IMHO.

        And YES.. I take that view from ANYONE. I look at ANY “report” written by pro-solar folks also with a jaundiced eye.

        Come on Jim – you KNOW this is NOT a truly objective report guy. It’s coming from an agency whose primary purpose is to promote fossil fuels! It would be like Dominion writing a laudatory “report” on their own performance which totally validates all their decisions! Oh wait……

        Good GRIEF!

        • Larry – I get your point. Who funds a report is a fair question to ask. But why doesn’t the same issue surface for the many reports that were funded by the Obama Administration, which had anti-coal bias?

          The author’s credentials, experience, history of reports/testimony, sources of funding, etc. are all fair game for any “expert” report.

          • TMT – the short answer is yes. That’s why I don’t accept at face value the “merits” of ANY “reports” from the pro-renewable crowd either and if you read my comments here – you KNOW that I am a heavy skeptic of a solar/wind/Demand Management – only power grid.

            I’ve argued here – over and over that solar will not “work” without gas.

            I’ve argued here that we still need the Nukes and without them – we’re back to burning even more fossil fuels.

            In terms of “anti-coal” bias – let me remind you that this issue was fully litigated all through the Bush administration long before Obama…

            My POINT is – and has been – whenever a “report” on ANY controversial issue is produced – to first, check the authors and the organization that hosts their report to see if they have an obvious conflict of interest – and in this case – it’s without question and I feel, should have been duly noted!

            I was initially taken in by the report but the phrase “system collapse” seemed over the top from a legitimate conclusion so I got to looking at it closer (as I should have to start with) and I did not have to go far to see the truth of the matter – an agency whose mission is to promote fossil fuels, a Boss – Rick Perry who is an avowed advocate of fossil fuels and a POTUS who has vowed to “bring back coal”.

            JB should have prefaced the “report” with a note to that effect – IMHO.

          • TMT – in order for one to use the word “anti” or “pro” – there generally has to be a circumstance where there are groups that are actually “pro” or “anti” – each with objective arguments to support their advocacy.

            I’m not “anti-coal”. I AM anti-pollution if there are other ways to accomplish our needs with less pollution but I do acknowledge that we have no choice but to pollute right now if we want a reliable and resilient grid.

            It’s a reluctant but pragmatic acknowledgement.

            I DO SUPPORT coal that meets modern emission standards IF we cannot achieve a reliable and resilient grid without them.

            Right now – IF – there actually is a legitimate question with respect to extreme weather events and whether the current grid can respond to those events without bringing older, higher polluting coal plants online – we need to KNOW that and it does need to be a legitimate point of debate.

            I WOULD accept PJM’s view since they seem to be totally non-partisan and totally focused on grid reliability and resiliency as their primary mission.

            Keep in mind – this is not about ALL coal plants. We will continue to need coal to power the grid. The issue is , can we do that ONLY with the more modern, less polluting plants or do we need to also be able to use the older, higher polluting plants as ‘backup’?

            This is not really a coal vs renewables debate anyhow – as coal plants cannot come online quickly… it takes hours, days for some older plants to come online and once online they cannot modulate as easily as gas can. This would be the case if there were no renewables at all… and actually has been the case in the past when renewables were not part of the equation.

            In the past – without renewables – we have had brownouts and blackouts from extreme weather events where the generation could not keep up with increased demand. It’s ALWAYS been a key issue!

            I’m NOT opposed to having older coal plants as backup if we truly do have a vulnerability but again – I need to hear that from more objective sources than the pro-coal folks and no.. I also do not put much stock in the pro-renewable folks either… PJM – yes… others.. who have a reputation of objectivity – yes… folks on the fringe on either side – perhaps with “trust by verify” caveats…

            “renewables” really should not be part of the debate – it’s almost like it’s a straw man argument because we all KNOW that renewables are not dispatchable… that they are, at best, only usable, when available.

            So – do you think I am biased and “anti-coal” and “pro renewables” ? tell me the truth.

        • Fine. Let’s see if people disagree, and let’s evaluate their critiques.

          But the LarryG technique is to point out the biases of the study writer and declare case closed, without evaluating what their arguments or the evidence they present.

          • Well.. if you had presented other evidence from less overtly-biased folks… perhaps…. you would be right ..

            but these folks – it’s pretty clear they are not objective at all once you take a cursory look at who they are.

            And really, that’s all I actually asked for – a front note to that effect – as you have done in the past for such reports – both pro and con… per your usual standards.

            In this case – you actually reminded us of “system collapse” and that’s what actually led to me taking a closer look because it simply did not sound like a typical conclusion from an unbiased source. Usually there are caveats… and more careful wording…

            The “Larry Gross Technique” – by the way – is to check the authors and the organization that hosted the “report” on a first cut – then look for other evidence from other places – like PJM.. whom I would be more likely to believe since their primary mission is grid reliability and resilience.

            And if PJM said similar words – I would be duly alarmed and then actually question why PJM had fumbled…

            You’ve caveat ed “reports” before Jim B… that’s why I was disappointed… it’s often your practice to make note of the authors and their organization….

  6. I think there will likely be a range of responses to this report from the DOE, emanating as it has soon after the FERC rejected DOE’s proposal to augment pricing for coal and nuclear units. One thing you must note in the quote Jim supplies from the paper is ““a 9-18 GW shortfall would have developed, depending on assumed imports and generation outages, leading to system collapse.” So, what “assumed imports and generation outages” did the paper assume? Would there have been adequate imports from the south, with which PJM has a number of interconnections, had some of this idle coal capacity not ramped up? With the Southwest Power Pool? Hmm. Not really examined by the authors of the study. Was there inadequate OTHER capacity available in PJM had the spare coal not been able to ramp? Again, not explored. While the nuclear units were running at full capacity and gas did not need to ramp further, given the availability of the otherwise idle coal, would gas have been incapable of meeting the load? Not concluded.

    How about the additional gas capacity that will be able to be served by new pipeline capacity coming from out of the Marcellus and Utica shales. So, those big new pipes may not be ready next year, but then not all this coal is retiring next year either.

  7. And for a somewhat different take, here is PJM’s report on its performance during the cold snap:

    http://www.pjm.com/-/media/library/reports-notices/weather-related/20180226-january-2018-cold-weather-event-report.ashx

    “Overall, all resources performed well during the recent cold snap, with natural gas supply outages much lower…” Page 18 of the above report. This report compares PJM system performance during the 2017-18 cold wave compared to the so-called polar vortex of 2014. See, figure 13 of the report for example. It depicts that on Jan 7, 2014, some 13,700 MW of coal capacity was in forced outage, mainly due to frozen coal piles or coal handling equipment. On Jan 7, 2018, this figure was reduced to 6,935 MW in part due to incentives and cold weather protocols PJM had developed in response to the polar vortex. The units the DOE credits with saving the system from collapse in 2018 nearly caused one in 2014 it appears, at least in PJM.

  8. “System collapse” is an extreme and inflammatory way to describe what would happen if there wasn’t enough generation when needed. PJM uses the resources made available to it at the time, to keep as much of the system up as possible. There is never a 100% guarantee that everyone’s lights will stay on the entire time, and there are procedures for rotating blackouts if it came to that, with due regard for priorities like hospitals. Yes, there are transmission lines to other parts of the country that can import some power, assuming they had it to spare. Yes, the renewables solar resources did not deliver everything that was asked, but it was not zero either. Importantly, PJM does not count the capacity value of solar at 100% of nameplate maximum

    Fortunately none of that was necessary here.

  9. “System collapse” is an extreme and inflammatory way to describe what would happen if there wasn’t enough generation when needed. PJM uses the resources made available to it at the time, to keep as much of the system up as possible. There is never a 100% guarantee that everyone’s lights will stay on the entire time, and there are procedures for rotating blackouts if it came to that, with due regard for priorities like hospitals. Yes, there are transmission lines to other parts of the country that can import some power, assuming they had it to spare. Yes, the renewables solar resources did not deliver everything that was asked, but it was not zero either. Importantly, PJM does not count the capacity value of solar at 100% of the nameplate maximum capability precisely because of past experience with its being unavailable in such circumstances.

    Fortunately none of that rotating blackout stuff was necessary here. They planned appropriately for this and the planning succeeded. The generation owners all pitch in at times like this to keep things going without interruption, even at the risk of damaging equipment that maybe hasn’t been run that hard for years. It’s a team effort.

    • Sure, everything turned out fine this time. But would it have turned out fine if there had been no coal-fired backup? Would have turned out fine if there had been no coal or nuclear in the generating mix? Would it have turned out fine if the entire grid were based on wind, solar, and natural gas?

      • PJM and the other system operators are constantly running “what-if” scenarios to test the reliability of their ability to respond to various crises. “Polar vortex” and other weather events have happened before and are pretty well understood and studied. Much scarier, IMHO, are the potential threats from the cyber world, computer hacking etc.

        The basic reliability of the grid is defined in standards and implementing criteria established by NERC and its regional organizations (PJM falls under two of those: MAAC, in the mid-Atlantic, and Reliability First, in the midwest) under FERC supervision. These standards define acceptable risk: the system operator is charged with planning the system and operating it to meet those levels of risk. Therefore there is an actual answer to the question, what’s an “acceptable” risk of an outage under various circumstances — just like any engineering firm could tell you the risk of a beam collapsing in a bridge (essentially nil but not zero), or a medical oncologist what’s the risk of a cancer treatment not working (much greater than zero, unfortunately).

        PJM translates these NERC standards into a “capacity requirement” for every LSE (load serving entity) in PJM. As a condition of membership in PJM, the LSE has to assign to PJM operational control an amount of “capacity” under contract (or controlled by ownership) equal to the LSE’s forecast annual peak load plus a reserve amount (on the order of 13% +/-) fixed annually by PJM (and approved by FERC) based on all those scenario studies and tests mentioned earlier. The theory is, if every LSE brings enough capacity to the table, PJM will always have enough resources available to keep the lights on collectively. Every generating plant has a risk of being shut down due to mechanical failure (“forced out”) at any particular time, but statistically the risk is less the larger the pool of generators. Large, regional events like winter storms are extreme tests of the grid’s resistance to failure but they are well studied and in that sense planned-for. As this storm demonstrated, there are interactions between the electric grid and other energy consumption such as natural gas deliveries to heat homes — there are finite limits on how much gas can be moved simultaneously, both from the sources into regional storage, and from regional storage into electric generators or retail gas pipelines. It could actually happen that some government agency has to tell a gas pipeline which customers to serve when it can’t move gas quick enough to serve all of them. DOE is one such agency, and NETL is one of DOE’s several research arms that are engaged in working through these “what-if” scenarios. By the way, I don’t agree at all that such agencies currently do such research in a politicized environment, although that is always a risk in today’s hyper politicization of Washington.

        The specific question whether these old coal units “saved” the grid is, I think, way off the mark. If these units were NOT in existence, or were mothballed (meaning, not ready to run on short notice), would the grid be unsafe? No. That simply means, the system operators would have reassessed whether 13% was enough capacity reserves overall and might have changed their operating procedures to require larger gas fuel inventories in certain forecast regional weather conditions. The risks, the scenarios, the reserves calculations, would change.

        One thing that would change if coal-fired generation were not available in significant amounts is that the ability to store and deliver natural gas in larger quantities would get a lot more attention. If it weren’t enough, you would hear about it. Studies showing a need for more pipeline capacity or more storage capacity would get touted as the reason for more pipeline construction, and/or the absence of these as the reason why more old coal generating stations can’t be retired, and/or why more dual-fuel plants need to be built (designed for efficient burning of natural gas but capable of burning oil or even gassified coal). “Would it have turned out fine if the entire grid were based on wind, solar and natural gas?” Probably yes, IF the planners had the right contingencies in place dealing with natural gas fuel supply; but that’s another way of saying, there would be all sorts of conditions imposed and planning adjustments made before the grid ever got to such a state.

        This reliability contingency planning all goes on behind the scenes and the public rarely sees it. As Steve keeps saying (and I completely agree!) this is why you need an expert regulator like the FERC and the VSCC that’s fully empowered and staffed to keep a watch over the NERC standards and all this complicated implementation stuff to make sure it’s actually being done right. There’s a case to be made for considering fuel types in assessing grid reliability; but DOE’s attempt to push FERC to favor more coal-fired generation in its rules on electric generating capacity adequacy was a blatently politicized ploy and has no place in regulation of the modern electric industry.

  10. It’s absolutely possible it could have turned out fine with wind, solar and natural gas. but lots of changes required to make that happen.

    DOE was charged with finding a reason for Trump’s coal rebirth. I would say that this paper, the one you cite, came from that effort, an effort that has been shot down in several quarters.

    My questions … Wind and solar are very different but their output is combined on this paper, making it difficult to determine the real effects. The paper’s stats say “declines in wind and solar output during the BC of 19 percent, 29 percent, and 32 percent,” Under normal circumstances solar and wind complement each other. Exactly what happens to wind in a winter storm is not clear, especially with offshore wind since we only have 5 windmills operating so far. Our ratio of wind and solar matters too.

    And my “Johnnie One Note” issue … onshore wind and offshore wind are very different. What happens to “wind” production is different from what will happen to wind production when the US develops the offshore wind now in the pipeline and beyond.

    Differences between the 2 wind resources:
    • Winds tend to blow harder and more consistently in the ocean, producing an energy output up to 40% higher than onshore wind.
    • Offshore turbines can also be larger than land turbines, allowing them to produce more energy over time.
    • Thanks to the ‘sea breeze effect’, an offshore wind farm will tend to be very productive when electric demand in the region is at its highest
    • Offshore wind and solar are complementary and combined can meet peak demand.

    Complementary production: The wind comes up a after the sun gets hot and lasts longer. “The sun will peak at noon,” … Offshore wind will peak at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., and the load peaks at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. in big cities like New York, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C..

    One of the key obstacles for offshore wind in the U.S. has been cost. But peak shaving — or capacity value — has the highest value of all electricity generation, and should be considered in cost calculations.

    Expansion of offshore wind in Virginia should be on the table with more than 2 possible ‘pilot’ windmills. Five years ago gas looked like it had a solid future. Not so anymore. Are we sure this paper didn’t originate from our utilities or our Legislature?

  11. https://bearingdrift.com/2018/04/10/coal-saved-grid-january/

    Uh oh, here we go again, right wing echo chamber :). Much more fun here with the raging debate in the comment section. Despite any possible biases in that particular report on last winter, the bottom line remains that 100 percent renewable is a pipe dream but it is a Good Thing that it will continue to grow as part of the mix. I too have a strong interest in off shore wind, developed during my time with that maritime company. But coal ist kaput – no reason to renew any of those plants. It is absolutely hilarious that German is returning to coal to avoid using nuclear.

    • The best example I can point to of a politicized energy grid is Germany’s “Energiewende” nationwide generation makeover, intended to push renewables well over 30% overall and nuclear down to zero — for political, not economic, reasons. It is an expensive experiment.

  12. Acbar
    I would caution holding up Germany energy policy for any comparisons. I am not sure what you mean about the politicizing of German energy policy but comparison of prices with Germany is a bit ‘apples and oranges’. Billing for power in Germany includes 2 taxes that make up 9.42 out of the total of 29.42 c/kwh, about 1/3 of the total price.

    There are other reasons the pricing is not equivalent, but what is an accomplishment in Germany is that over the past 20 years, German households have reduced their energy consumption by 10 percent, while the respective rate in the United States increased by 20 percent. In 2014, “an average German household used less than a third of the power of its US equivalent, and also less than an average household in other major industrialized countries in Europe, such as France, Britain, or Spain.”

  13. Pingback: No, Coal Did Not Save the Grid in January - Bacon's Rebellion

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