Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Why coal remains necessary

by Syd S. Peng

As the nation’s transition to renewable energy gains speed, with rapid deployment of wind and solar power and grid-scale batteries, a misguided idea is taking hold: There’s no longer any need for coal generation and coal mining in the United States.

Actually, there are major benefits from electricity produced from coal plants and mining.

Coal will remain critically important as we usher in our energy future and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. Coal is more reliable, free of the intermittency risks that renewables have. In fact, efforts to prematurely push coal aside not only threaten serious economic damage in coal states, but also jeopardize much of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda.

Think about the extraordinary importance of metallurgical coal to steel production — steel being the essential ingredient in building new infrastructure and undergirding energy technologies for tomorrow’s electricity grid.

Worldwide, 70% of steel is manufactured with metallurgical coal, known as met coal. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 170 met mines, supporting 11,000 direct jobs.

Enormous amounts of steel will soon be required due to passage of the climate bill: steel for new roads, bridges, port infrastructure and even the hundreds of thousands of electric vehicle chargers that will be installed.

The climate bill is conservatively expected to generate $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, which will boost domestic steel demand by an additional 6 million tons annually. While the construction of bridges and pipelines will account for most of the demand, the increasing deployment of wind and solar capacity — and the transmission infrastructure needed to move it on the nation’s grid — will also require a lot of steel.

Consider the fact that just one high-voltage transmission tower needs about 40,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds of steel. Each new megawatt of solar power needs between 35 tons and 45 tons of steel, and each new megawatt of wind power requires 120 tons to 180 tons of steel, with massive offshore wind turbines needing even more.

As more renewable power is added to the electricity grid, coal plants — which provide 20% of the nation’s power and are the leading source of electricity in 15 states — will play a crucial role in safeguarding energy reliability.

Although renewables are being added with the expectation they’ll be able to increase system-wide generating capacity, the reality is they won’t even come close to providing the power needed to ensure a secure and reliable supply of energy.

Consider what happened to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) electricity market, which covers much of the Midwest. Despite installed generating capacity increasing by more than 4,200 MW over the past five years, accredited generating capacity — that is, capacity that can be counted on to perform when needed — has fallen by 8,300 MW because intermittent sources of power have been unable to fill the gaps left by premature and ill-advised coal retirements. While total generating capacity did rise, MISO now has a gaping power supply shortfall during periods of peak demand.

The nation desperately needs a large dose of energy policy pragmatism. A good start would be to place a hold on systemwide coal regulations. The reason? Using wind, solar and natural gas as the primary sources of the nation’s energy supply remains more promise than performance. Without coal, we would not have enough electricity for our homes and businesses.

To underpin grid reliability, coal must be part of a diverse mix of dispatchable fuel capable of providing a bridge to the future until the time when renewables can supply enough power to meet electricity demand.

The importance of coal cannot be overemphasized. It would be a shameful waste of money, and put that much more strain on the economy, if coal plants and steel mills were forced to close for lack of fuel. The consequences wouldn’t be small. Billions of investment dollars could be gone in an instant. And the economic impact would be huge.

The time to stop talking and start acting responsibly is running short.

Syd S. Peng is the WVU Charles E. Lawall Chair of Mining Engineering emeritus.