by Paolo von Schirach —
WASHINGTON — As Joe Manchin’s (Democratic Senator, West Virginia) website states: “Senator Manchin is proud to serve as Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he will fight for a commonsense, balanced energy approach that recognizes West Virginia’s critical role in our nation’s energy future and helps us achieve energy independence within a generation.” [Bold added] Translated into simple language this means that Senator Manchin will use this Senate Committee perk as a means to ensure that West Virginia, a major coal producing state, will continue to play a critical role in America’s energy future. Manchin will do whatever he can to protect the coal industry, including all the jobs related to it.
Bad energy policies will cause more frequent blackouts
While we keep this special coal concern in mind, we should note that as Chairman of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Manchin recently presided over a committee hearing that sounded the alarm on how the openly pro-renewables bias embraced by the US Environmental Protection Energy (EPA) most likely will undercut the ability of the US utilities to deliver all the electricity that America needs, without any interruptions or blackouts.
According to projections provided to the Senate Energy Committee by NERC, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit set up by the electricity industry, the US has now entered a dangerous phase in which regional power blackouts will be more frequent and possibly more severe in terms of number of customers affected and length of outages.
It should be noted that NERC’s mission is to “ensure the reliability of the North American bulk power system.” In other words, NERC’s mission is not about promoting one form of power generation –be it solar, nuclear, coal, hydro, gas or wind– versus another. NERC is about promoting policies that ensure and indeed strengthen electric supply reliability, whatever the sources of the electricity. NERC monitors the electric power generation industry to make sure that there is enough uninterrupted electric power generation and distribution capacity in America to satisfy the current and projected needs of the American people — national security, households, government offices, businesses and industries.
We are losing capacity without adequate replacements
Well, according to NERC going forward the power generation industry as a whole will be significantly less capable to meet current and future demand. Hence the disturbing projections about electricity supply interruptions, due to lack of sufficient power generated to meet aggregate demand, especially at peak times, when high summer temperatures force customers to crank up air conditioning systems for a long time, or in winter when it is very cold and millions of Americans need more electric heating.
What is causing this problem? According to NERC, Senator Manchin and some of the expert witnesses who appeared in front of his committee, the problem is that in its efforts to promote the rapid adoption of renewable energy as a source for electricity generation, the US EPA is creating technical and environmental standards mandates that for all practical purposes regulate coal fired plants out of existence.
Of course, we all know that coal fired power plants are the worst offenders when it comes to greenhouse gases emissions and other pollutants. Phasing them out is a good long term policy objective. The problem is that if we eliminate them now or in the near term, without replacing them with different power plants that supply the same amount of constant electricity, effectively we cut down total supply. And this means that the US electric power generation industry as a whole, lacking the generation capacity that was provided by the phased out coal fired plants, will be unable to meet aggregate demand, especially at peak times.
Existing renewables are insufficient
Which is to say that its is really ill-advised to push for the rapid phasing out of coal power plants, bad as they are for the environment, when alternative sources are not yet fully deployed. This is a simple common sense consideration. And yet, according to Manchin and others, this is precisely what is going on. And there is more. It is a well known fact that coal, or natural gas for that matter, provide a constant source of electricity. Whereas renewable energy is not constant. The wind may not blow at times, and there is no sun at night, or on very cloudy days. For the time being, the existing battery technology does not allow electricity storage in amounts large enough to guarantee uninterrupted power supply. Hence the need to have back-up supply systems. And this is usually done via gas fired or coal fired electric power plants. Hopefully, at some point, the electricity storage technological bottleneck that makes renewable energy less reliable will be solved. But we are not there yet.
So, here is the picture. The energy policies pursued by the Biden administration aim at doing away with fossil fuels as quickly as possible. When it comes to electricity generation, the focus is on phasing out high emissions coal fired plants. In principle, there is nothing wrong with any of this. We want to reduce emissions, and the greenhouse gases that cause global warming and ultimately climate change, But in practice this approach is myopic and dangerous, because it does not take into account the impact of a rapid phase out when we still do not have viable, equivalent alternatives in place.
US efforts alone will not change the global emissions outlook
Beyond that, it is also clear to all that even if successful this Washington effort to close down all US coal fired plants will have almost no impact on the global amount of C02 in the Earth’s atmosphere, because heavy coal users like China and India (among others) continue to rely heavily on coal. In fact they add coal fired capacity in order to increase electricity generation. In simple words, even if well executed (and this is not the case), this US anti-coal crusade would make sense only if the entire world, starting with the biggest coal users, would join.
Negligible environmental benefits, major economic damage
While the contribution to cuts in global temperatures will be invisible, the economic damage to the US economy caused by Washington pursuing these zero carbon policies will be huge. Indeed, the problem for America is that in its zeal to be done with carbon produced power generation as soon as possible, the US Government will cause harmful cuts to total electricity supply. This way, in its pursuit of green goals, Washington will end up crippling America. We know the disastrous economic impact of unreliable electricity. Look at more than half of Africa and how lack of reliable, constant and affordable electricity prevents economic growth. According to Senator Manchin, Washington energy policy makers do not understand that in order to have an orderly transition out of carbon we need to have in place the non carbon equivalent in constant electric power generation, coupled with back up systems that guarantee uninterrupted supply even at peak times.
If the picture is really this bad, then we can conclude that there are no limits to bad public policy choices. Look, we can all stipulate that in the long term we want affordable, clean energy. This is a worthwhile goal. But we cannot get there by magic. If we cut dirty power plants today, we need to be able to deploy the equivalent supply provided by reliable renewable sources today, not some time in the future.
Bad public policy will cause damages
It is no surprise that Senator Manchin, representing West Virginia, a major coal producing state, is eager to point out the defects of current energy policy that targets coal without having in place good replacements, this way creating a path for more blackouts and the ensuing economic damage for America. Maybe we can stipulate that Senator Manchin overstates the case somewhat. However, if in hot summers or cold winters the combined US power generation capacity fails to meet demand because regulators forced the premature closing down of existing coal fired plants, guilty of being dirty, without adequate replacements for the lost power generation capacity, Americans and the American economy will suffer greatly. And this will be because of a self-inflicted wound caused by policies driven by ideological zeal, rather than by a concern for the overall welfare of the nation.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.