If you have read these articles, or attended any Nodak meetings over the last several years, you have probably heard us talk about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its assault on coal. Lately, that assault has become more of an all-out war on coal.
North Dakota electric cooperatives own about 90 percent of the coal-based generation in the state, and more than half of the electricity you and I receive as Nodak members comes from these coal-fired power plants. Most of these plants were built in the 1970s at a time when the federal government passed the Fuel Use Act, which prohibited generating power with natural gas. Since that time, North Dakota’s electric cooperatives have invested more than $2 billion to protect the environment by installing emission control equipment on their plants and annually spend an additional $100 million to operate the equipment. This environmental stewardship has helped North Dakota become one of only seven states in the nation that comply with all federal ambient air quality standards.
That’s a quick little bit of history. Now, the rules are changing again. The EPA and our president, through a series of executive orders, are placing unattainable limits on carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to force us to abandon the clean coal foundation of our generation fleet in favor of that very fuel source that was prohibited in the ’70s – natural gas.
Aside from the fact that as a rule of thumb, natural gas is a more expensive fuel source than coal, what is even more concerning is the volatility of its price and the capability of the nation’s pipeline infrastructure to deliver the product.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Admin-istration, the price for natural gas used to generate electricity in the U.S. has increased nearly 70 percent in just the last 12 months alone, and more than 100 percent in the last two years. Add on top of that the fact that during times of highest demand, the current natural gas delivery system is incapable of servicing the need, and you have a recipe for disaster.
I’m sure you all remember last winter’s polar vortex, that period of extreme cold weather across the entire nation. As we were experiencing those 30-plus degrees below zero, power delivery was becoming very difficult across the nation. Locally, we had 30 percent of our generation mix from wind turbines provide absolutely nothing when we needed it the most. Obviously, wind turbines don’t produce when the wind doesn’t blow, but they also don’t work when it’s 30 below zero, whether the wind is blowing or not.
On a wider scale, during the polar vortex natural gas generation was dropping offline as utility operators out East had trouble finding enough natural gas to keep the power plants running. The wholesale price of electricity rose to more than 20 times the retail price consumers usually pay, and utilities with purchase power clauses in their rates were passing those high costs on to their consumers. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that homeowners in parts of Pennsylvania received bills in January as high as $1,250 for the month because their utility had to purchase replacement power in an outrageous wholesale market.
The point of this discussion is this: as coal-fired plants shut down across the nation and there is a shift to more expensive, less reliable sources, there is a growing fragility in the U.S. electric system that is likely to create price shocks. Now, as members of the energy-consuming public, we have two options available to us. We can stand idly by as costs escalate and electricity becomes less reliable and complain about it to those who will listen. Or, we can engage ourselves and tell the EPA we want all energy resources to be used in meeting our energy needs rather than all resources but coal.
The EPA has already issued carbon dioxide emission limits for new power plants that effectively remove coal as an option for new plants. Soon, the EPA will release CO2 emission limits for existing plants, including the ones that operate within the Nodak Electric Cooperative system. Once these proposed regulations are released, we need everyone to tell EPA we aren’t interested in volatile pricing and questionable reliability. We want North Dakota lignite coal to remain the foundation of our power mix as it has for 70-plus years.
Keep an eye out in our publications, on our website and on Facebook for news on these new regulations and what you can do to help.