Fossil Fuel Power’s Achilles Heal – Fossil Fuel

The closer coupling of the US natural gas system with our electrical system, as shown this past winter, has displayed the weaknesses in both systems.  This winter’s experience has generated a lot of noise from the coal/nuke electricity industry for more coal and nuke plants, and from the natural gas industry for more pipelines, particularly into the Northeast.

Here’s the problem, these systems were only put under stress for a few days during winter peak load.  Generating plants and pipelines are long term investments that are paid for by all rate payers.  The fossil fuel industry wants us to build all this new capacity, or, worse yet, keep obsolete and dirty older plants operating, just so they can provide a little extra power a few days a year.  This was exactly why PATH was such a bad way to solve perceived capacity problems in PJM.

It makes much more sense to invest in ways that will shave off peak load than it does to invest billions of dollars in capacity that may only be needed, if at all, a few days per year.  That is what demand management resources do, and do very well.

Increased gas-fueled electric generation now offers a way for decentralized renewable power generation to reduce strains on both our electrical system and our natural gas system.  The other significant advantage that solar and wind power have over all fossil fuel plants, of course, is that they don’t require any fuel at all.  Almost all of this winter’s problems can be traced to fossil fuel shortages of one kind or another.  So, no fossil fuel, no fuel supply problems.

This winter’s problems involved only the need for some additional marginal capacity in particular areas.  This problem does not need billions of new dollars of new rate increases to solve.  It needs better and smarter investment in decentralized renewable generation and demand management, not more fossil fuel capacity.

5 thoughts on “Fossil Fuel Power’s Achilles Heal – Fossil Fuel

  1. excellent Article. Yes, the frack/coal/oil industry is a ball & chain around the US & the world. Its past time to move on

  2. “So, no fossil fuel, no fuel supply problems.”

    You want to see what relying on a variable output power source like wind and solar for caseload power … spend a few months in Caracas Venezuelan.

    • Mike,

      You’ve lost me. I have never heard that Caracas gets all of its electric power from solar and wind. In fact, more than 70% of Venezuela’s electricity comes from hydroelectric generation (, and most of the rest from fossil fuels. Hydro, a renewable source, is the most reliable, and by far the cheapest, base load generation there is. Venezuela’s main problems seem to be with transmission and distribution. If you have been paying attention here on The Power Line, that has been my point about electrical system reliability since I started writing there 6 years ago. Centralized generation, regardless of whether it is fossil fueled or renewable, is a bad idea, because it is dependent on unreliable and expensive transmission infrastructure.

      Contrary to your comment, Venezuela would be a good candidate for decentralized generation, because they could completely eliminate fossil fuels and rely on hydro for their base load power. Decentralized solar power and limited local storage could be used to back up times when the transmission and distribution of hydro power failed.

      BTW, I hope your reference to “caseload power” did not mean that you think Venezuela’s electrical system is powered by lawyers.

      • Bill,

        Perhaps the Caracas analogy wasn’t clear. Its not Caracas’, or indeed most of Venezuela’s reliance on one kind of power I was referring to, it’s the unreliability of their grid. And that’s what we risk as we continue to eliminate baseload generation.

        I read most of your blog posts and while you have a point here or there, I think you drastically underestimate the cost of a decentralized grid. A decentralized grid would quadruple (at least) what people pay for electricity.

        To your point about the grid, there exists a point somewhere on the centralization vs decentralization relationship where we need to operate that maximizes system wide reliability and minimizes cost. The farther we operate on the decentralization portion of the curve, the more reliable the grid is as a whole but the price increases exponentially. It’s the economics of scale … the larger your generator (up to a point) the less it costs per unit of delivered power. Two generations ago we actually had much higher decentralization than we do now .. nearly every metropolitan area produced the electricity it used. To the decentralization argument, each metropolitan area needs to produce the electricity they consume. And yes, that means we need to build large thermal power plants in places like LA, DC and NYC .

      • Mike,

        Thanks for the discussion. You are right about the continuum between centralization and decentralization. I would probably disagree with you on the calculation of costs and benefits. The fact is that the hypercentralized coal and nuke baseload system is heavily subsidized Large amounts of the costs from fuel extraction to health impacts of pollution and radiation have been externalized from the electricity industry onto other businesses and individuals. Most of the studies that I have seen of these external costs indicate that our current system is much more expensive than you imply.

        In Charleston, WV, we have just seen a company that sells chemicals to the thermal coal industry impose hundreds of millions of dollars of damages on Kanawha County businesses, governments and people. That company immediately declared bankruptcy and is sticking everyone else with these costs. That is a cost of producing and shipping large amounts of coal to centralized power stations that never appears on people’s electric bills.

        I have no problem with moderate sized nat gas plants near large cities. What we don’t need is power from the John Amos plant being used to meet NJ load. If you have read my past posts on NJ’s fight with FERC and PJM you will see that I have no problem with nat gas plants close to load centers. If you are trying to paint me as an advocate of some kind of extreme decentralization scheme, you need to do some reading on The Power Line. I am not that guy. I would love to see every city in the US be self sufficient in electricity.

        The problem for the centralized system is that the economies of scale that you refer to no longer work in the US. They only worked when demand was doubling every decade, as it did through most of the 20th century. Now demand is flat, and there is a big overhang of obsolete plant and infrastructure. So the centralized system has to be rebuilt and recapitalized anyway. Why not rebuild it into a better system, starting with offshore wind generation off the east coast and Great Lakes to serve major US population centers? Instead of all this crap about investing $100 billion in a new HV “supergrid” to move electricity around the US, why not spend half of that on new generation close to load?

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