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Coal vs. natural gas during the polar vortex

Julie Grant
Allegheny Front
Fred White shows his wood pellet furnace.

President Barack Obama wants the U.S. to get serious about climate change. He’s proposed to limit carbon emissions from power plants. The coal industry and conservative politicians say new carbon rules will kill King Coal, and they warn that without it, severe weather events, like last year’s polar vortex, could leave people in the cold and dark.

As we begin what could be another rough winter, we looked into whether the polar vortex argument holds water, and how industry is adjusting to the changing energy climate.

It was a cold day, the first this season that Fred White turned on the heat. He could fire up the gas, but today he’s using his wood furnace. He pours in a bag of wood pellets.

“This will last three or four days,” he says.

White installed a wood furnace five years ago, because, he says, gas prices were getting too high. Now, he can work the energy market.

“If gas prices goes way up, sorry East Ohio Gas, I’m buying pellets," he says. "If the price of gas goes down, sorry pellet dudes, I’m buying gas.”

Power in short supply during extreme cold

When temperatures dip -- in some places last year they were 30 degrees below average -- homes, businesses, and industry all needed more power.

“On the worst day last January, the grid was very tight on power supply," says Ray Dotter, a spokesman for PJM Interconnection. It runs the electric grid for 13 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and West Virginia.

Dotter says there was record demand for power last January.

“We had a record amount of generation, of power plants, that were supposed to be available, but were not available, to operate,” he says.

PJM and other electric grid operators around the country worried about rolling blackouts.

Credit Courtesy the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, Polar Vortex Review, September 2014.

Why on the days of most need were power plants unable to run?

Jay Apt, who directs Carnegie Mellon University's Electricity Industry Center, says about half the natural gas power outages were caused by plants malfunctioning in the extreme cold.

“Coal plants the same thing. We had coal piles that were frozen shut, conveyer belts to take the coal that wouldn’t move," Apt says. "And parts in the plants that didn’t work at all.”

Some in the energy industry say the electric grid needed every coal plant in the fleet. But by next year, many will be shut down.

Doug Collafella is spokesperson for Ohio-based FirstEnergy, which owns power plants and utility companies in several states. Most of their energy comes from coal. Collafella says FirstEnergy has three coal plants along Lake Erie scheduled for closure next year because of environmental regulations.

“We have to ensure that we do not set up rules that favor one sources of generation of the other, and that we lose these critical facilities,” Collafella says.

Credit Courtesy the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, Polar Vortex Review, September 2014.
RF refers to "ReliabilityFirst," the bulk power system for Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, and other states in the region.

Coal vs. natural gas prices

Others in the industry say coal plants are not closing because of mercury regulations. Lee Davis is East Region President for the power producer NRG. He says coal is being shut down because it can’t compete financially.

“The biggest driver that has driven pressure on coal plants, and nuclear plants for that matter, is the price of natural gas,” Davis says.

But natural gas usage also contributed to the energy problems during the polar vortex. Energy experts say part of the problem was infrastructure, a lack of pipelines. Many gas plants couldn’t get the gas they needed to run, so they sat idle.

Ray Dotter at the PJM electric grid says they’re working on these issues. But in the long run, producing coal, natural gas and other fuels could help make the grid more stable.

“There’s less of a reliance on any one fuel, and more of a diversity among all of them,” he says.

It’s kind of a large-scale version of what Fred White set up at his house in Ohio. Most days he can choose to heat with gas or wood pellets, depending on what’s cheaper. But if one of them isn’t available, he still has a way to keep warm.