Sorry, Coal: US Defense Department Puts A Finger On Grid Resilience Scales (CleanTechnica Exclusive)

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Coal industry stakeholders been pushing hard to keep coal-fired power plants front and center in the nation’s grid mix, and a couple of new proposals from the Trump administration’s Energy Department could give them the upper hand. However, this year’s hurricane season has already exposed huge cracks in the coal industry’s “grid resilience” argument, and they’re also butting up against the Defense Department’s anti-coal initiatives.

Hmmm…DOE vs. DOD. If you have an idea who could win that fight, drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile, for an insider’s view of the whole dust-up, CleanTechnica sat down for an exclusive phone interview with Mark Dyson, who heads up the Electricity Innovation Lab at the Rocky Mountain Institute (the following quotes are edited for clarity and flow).

Grid Resilience And National Defense

Coal has long had a strained relationship with the nation’s fighting forces. Unlike petroleum, natural gas, and even nuclear energy, coal has virtually zero application for one critical aspect of national defense, that being mobility.

Way back in an earlier century, coal facilitated the US Navy’s transition out of wind power, but it soon gave way to petroleum and nuclear powered craft. Likewise, coal-fired steam locomotives outlived their usefulness for ground transportation and gave way to diesel back in the 1950s.

That leaves coal with the important job of stationary energy supply for domestic military bases, but its vulnerability to transportation, storage, and transmission issues has been coming to a head in recent years. Here’s a nifty explainer from our friends over at The Conversation (h/t Raw Story):

But after Hurricane Harvey, flooded coal piles forced one of America’s largest coal plants in Texas to close two of its units and convert others to natural gas. Frozen coal piles and train derailments have kept coal plants elsewhere from operating during cold winter weather. A recent report by the Rhodium Group states:

“Of all the major power disruptions, nation-wide over the past five years, only 0.0007 percent were due to fuel supply problems. The vast majority were the result of severe weather knocking down power lines.”

The Rocky Mountain Institute Weighs In

For those of you unfamiliar with the Rocky Mountain Institute, it’s a Colorado-based renewable energy advocacy organization that, among other programs, provides guidance for leading US businesses seeking to transition out of fossil fuels.

In our conversation, Dyson summed up the Defense Department’s pole position on clean energy:

The US military is on the leading edge. They have a very intentional way to think about energy security, by bringing the energy supply closer to their bases. This is the example we should be looking at.

The Energy Department is attempting to address the supply issue by applying its new proposals only to locations where a 90-day supply of coal can be stockpiled, but as The Conversation notes, stockpiling coal on site is not the solution.

Dyson underscored the point that the old model for grid resilience is seriously out of date:

Both the gas industry and renewables see the writing on the wall. Flexibility is the way to go. The idea of big, centralized, remote plants remote plants operating 24/7 is not compatible with economic reality.

The proposed rule would reinforce vulnerability. The grid would still be vulnerable to any big event, whether it involves nuclear, a solar storm, or another hurricane.

There’s no reason to believe that you can avoid problems by stockpiling a giant cache of coal somewhere. Between them, the weather and squirrels cause more outages than lack of fuel supply.

That goes for nuclear as well as coal, btw. As described by Dyson, nuclear power plants are less vulnerable to weather extremes than coal plants, but they still depend on a “fragile network of wires” to get electricity from the source to the customer:

Utilities themselves recognize this. The Vogtle nuclear project, for example, already involves a lot of sunk costs. Now the question is how much good money to throw after bad. Folks are realizing that it may not be worth it to complete the construction.

Similarly, PG&E determined it was cheaper to shut down the Diablo Canyon plant in California. [licenses for the plant expire in 2024 and 2025, and the company has declared that it will not seek renewal].

A Microgrid Future For Puerto Rico

Grid resilience stakeholders — including Elon Musk, of course — are already talking up renewables and microgrids as the long term solution for energy security in Puerto Rico, which lost virtually its entire grid after Hurricane Maria swept through last month.

Dyson agreed that microgrids are the wave of the future. Though he cautions against over-reliance on natural gas, he also foresees that gas-fired power plants will continue to play an important role in the microgrid model:

If we only replaced retired coal and nuclear power plants with natural gas, that would not be the way to go. Grid resilience is improved by diversity and DERS [distributed energy resources] that are spread out in space, ideally as close as possible to customers.

Support Our Troops! Coal, Not So Much

CleanTechnica has spilled much ink on the US military’s transition out of fossil fuels, and the direct impact on the logistics of national defense is just one aspect of that transition.

The documentary film The Burden details the impact of fossil fuel dependency on military readiness, and describes a chilling effect on the very communities that support the US military with a steady flow of dedicated Soldiers and talented leaders.

DOD is also concerned with maintaining healthy relationships with the communities that host its facilities, and coal-fired power plants don’t help much in that regard.

DOD has been steadily retiring coal plants at its facilities. It reached a milestone in 2016, when the US Navy retired its last on-site coal fired power plant in favor of a new natural gas system.

The Navy marked the occasion with a twist of the knife in coal’s back:

Replacing the Goddard Power Plant, the new, decentralized steam system provides a much more environmentally-friendly footprint, as well as a substantial reduction in the Navy’s dependency on fossil fuels; specifically, the vast amounts of coal — approximately 15,000 tons per year — needed to provide power and steam to NSF Indian Head.

DOD is also vigorously pursuing other pathways out of coal, including new investments in energy efficiency, distributed rooftop solar, large scale rooftop solar, and utility scale ground mounted solar arrays, and to a lesser extent (so far), on-site wind turbines.

Meanwhile, word has just come in over the transom that one of the largest coal power plants in Texas will close in a few months.

The 1,880 megawatt Monticello Power Plant, about 115 miles east of Dallas, has been identified as a “key source of smog-causing pollution” in the state. The Dallas Morning News reported this explanation from Allan Koenig of the plant’s parent company Vistra:

“It’s purely economic,” he said. “The plant guys tried everything they could to keep it open, but it was a money loser. In a competitive market, you’ve got to take these steps. This is a coal plant operating in a market that’s flooded with cheap natural gas.”

Long story short, if the Trump Administration wants to soak taxpayers with artificially high electricity bills, the new DOE proposals for subsidizing coal and nuclear power plants would be a good way to do that.

The ball’s in your court, DOE.

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Photo: Solar array at Fort Hunter Liggett, California by John R. Prettyman, USACE.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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