I have to admit that as sad as the spectacle in Washington is, I feel for Donald Trump. Surely, I think, somewhere within him there must be a frightened child, desperate for praise he never got. I am not sure what else could explain his folly.
Coal and nuclear power are both dying, falling victim to natural gas and renewable energy. Trump used to blame the Democrats, and especially “Obama’s war on coal.” He used to take the position that removing subsidies for renewable power would be sufficient to bring a renaissance to the coal industry. But despite his efforts, coal plants have just kept closing.
He also used to say that he did not want the government to pick winners and losers. Now he has had to give up on that position as well. In doing so, he has made clear one implication that he has not made explicit: Trump really does not believe that coal and nuclear are competitive. He does not believe they can make it on their own.
His position of support for them is theoretically based on the idea that we somehow need coal and nuclear power for national security. Somehow, coal and nuclear power plants are less prone to outage than natural gas, because they can store fuel. His own appointees in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) disagree, but that has not deterred him.
His position defies history. Most of the long-term power outages in this country have not been the result of lack of fuel, but because of loss of transmission ability or inability of the plant to operate for reasons that have nothing to do with fuel supply.
Examples of this come to mind immediately. The Wolf Creek nuclear plant, which failed for a variety of reasons ranging from fire to floods, was off-line for over a year. The Crystal River nuclear plant and the San Onofre nuclear plant both experienced engineering failures that closed them permanently. These plants cost ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars for electricity that they never got.
An important example of a long-term failure is Puerto Rico, which lost power in a storm because of poor transmission infrastructure and has failed to regain it back completely, largely due to the fact that Donald Trump was more interested in showing off his ability to toss paper towels than actually providing the food, water, electricity, and health care that the people desperately needed. Here, Trump showed his ignorance of security and a (possibly complete) lack of compassion.
In 2014, both FERC and NASA have warned us about the possibility of long-term national outages. The FERC warning related to terrorists potentially attacking grid transmission facilities and bringing the grid down for over a year. And NASA warned us about a coronal discharge that could shut the grid down for over three years. In neither case would the presence of coal-burning plants be helpful. In both cases, nuclear plants could make things far, far worse.
If we examine the question of whether it is even possible that he can save coal, the emphatic answer is “No!” The coal industry has been in rapid decline for ten years. You can see this in its stock prices. Between 2008 and 2012, the fall of coal stocks was comparable to the fall of the Dow Jones Industrials between 1928 and 1932. The difference is that the DJI recovered, but the Dow Jones Coal Index just kept on falling at the same rate. Every one of the components of the Coal Index in 2008 has since then either gone broke or has been gobbled up by some company that is, at best, in trouble. Today’s coal index has only one component, and that was recently created.
The coal industry is being barely kept alive by plants that are getting to the end of their lifetimes. On Trump’s watch, they have only continued to close. He might be able to stem that tide for a couple of years. But he might not.
Even if Trump does stem the tide, the economic pressure on coal will continue to build, because the price of renewable energy is still falling. GTM Research is projecting that the cost of electricity from solar panels in the United States will be somewhere around 1.5¢/kWh in 2022, and improvements in batteries could make solar and wind power dispatchable, as Steve Hanley made clear in an article in CleanTechnica. Coal cannot compete with current realities.
And even if Trump can force the coal plants to keep open until they fail, they will eventually fail. And they will not be replaced. Their economics are so bad that not even one is under development in the United States.
Nor will he save nuclear power. One of the biggest problems with nuclear power is that it is so expensive. It is very hard to get financing from anyone other than China or Russia. (Will Trump try to get their help? Do you suppose they might have ulterior motives?) Very few regular financiers seem to be willing to put money into nuclear power, unless they are given some sort of guarantee that they will make money. Power Engineering Magazine recently told us that Toshiba had pulled the plug on two reactors that were under development in Texas because they could not find any partners for the project. Only two reactors are under construction in this country.
There are nuclear plants that Donald Trump cannot keep alive, regardless of what he does. In order to keep those going that are already officially scheduled to close, they would need to be refueled. The fuel needs to be ordered about a year in advance, so if they are scheduled to close within a year from the time Trump’s order is made, they will have to close anyway, at least temporarily. Continuing operations can also require licensing issues be addressed, a lengthy process that can take years at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Clearly, I cannot envision anything but inevitable long-term failure for any project trying to save coal and existing nuclear designs.
Of course, the oil and gas industries are not exactly delighted with the prospect that Trump is planning to aid their competitors, coal and nuclear. Trump’s actions would put a particularly strong squeeze on natural gas, because its generating output is already in decline. Natural gas generated less than 93% of the electrical power in 2017 that it had generated in 2016, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. More natural gas was produced, and the increased amount was exported.
If Trump makes things worse for gas-fired electric generation, he will just be adding damage to existing market pressures on utilities. According to an article from Reuters, two major utilities, Vistra Energy Corp. and Dominion Energy Inc., which have about 5.5 million electricity customers between them, have already announced that they will not build any more combined-cycle natural gas power plants. They will build solar plants instead, because solar plants are less expensive and are not subject to supply problems. Put another way, they are more secure.
So natural gas is killing coal and nuclear, but now natural gas is being killed by solar and wind. Perhaps Trump will have to save natural gas next. But would that mean letting go of coal and nuclear?
Movement on the battery front has added a new dimension to this. With batteries like the Hornsdale Power Reserve, any renewable resource can supply baseload power, and the batteries can make money taking up slack resulting from the inflexibility of fossil fuels in a market with customer demand that changes radically on a constant basis.
Other businesses are also not enthralled by Trump’s market fiddling. Clearly the manufacturers of gas and steam turbines will not benefit from Trump’s fiddling with the market. General Electric has been having problems with its power division, which makes steam and gas turbines. (Wind turbines are made by a different division.) Though GE made the problem clear in a recent report to shareholders, other manufacturers of turbines are having the same problem. Mitsubishi brought it into sharper focus. An article in Nikkei Asian Review told us, “Mitsubishi Heavy expects to exhaust orders for equipment such as steam or gas turbines by 2020.”
Actually, most utilities could be expected not to support the plan. Historically, about 80% of US utilities had not generated their own power, but many of them have added power generation recently with solar, wind, or other renewable sources. These utilities are aware of the nature of distributed generation, and many of them are afraid of losing customers who decide to generate power of their own. Customers that are often lost range from factories and warehouses to universities and data centers. Few customers will tolerate paying extra for polluting power.
In one case, two years ago, the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative paid $37 million to get out of a contract that tied it to electricity generated with coal, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. Instead, it switched to solar power. The economics of coal were that bad compared to those for solar power.
Donald Trump is fiddling with the economy of power, but it is clear that he has no idea what he is doing. He is certainly not advised well, but that should be no surprise because many of his appointees are clueless about the natures of their jobs. We cannot expect his plans to succeed.
Trump’s plans will fail, at some point. If for no other reason, that will happen simply because the economics of coal and nuclear power are terrible. In the meantime, we are not making America great by sticking with obsolete technology while the rest of the world moves to the future. And we are not acting for the benefit of the people by poisoning them with the pollution of fossil fuels.
It would seem clear that the security problems we really do have can be best addressed by local power systems that do not require either fuel and can operate independently from the national grid, if necessary. That implies widespread use of the same systems that are the most economical and least polluting, solar, wind and other renewable sources.
We could be spared a lot of trouble, if the Republican leadership in Washington D.C. (and, truth be told, Democrats also) would put patriotism above party politics. We would be spared if they put the good of the people above welfare for the wealthy. I can wish that would happen. I do not hold out much hope for it.
Meanwhile, our destiny is being guided by an injured child who never grew up and who fiddles as fossils burn around him.
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