When I served on the Missouri Public Service Commission, I spent time studying the different utilities that supply electricity throughout our state. And along the way, I learned some surprising facts about our power grid.
For starters, we still depend on a lot of coal-fired power. In 2014, coal generated 83 percent of our electricity. That number declined slightly last year, to 77 percent—but it’s still our top source of electricity. And our one nuclear power plant, Callaway Nuclear Generating Station, contributes a sizable 12 percent, too.
We also maintain a renewable energy component, though it’s admittedly rather small. Renewable resources like hydroelectric, solar, and wind, accounted for 3.4 percent of Missouri electricity generation last year. And we derive additional electricity from natural gas plants.
I’m in favor of our state gathering electricity from all of these sources — in what’s often referred to as an “all of the above” mix. For example, I support modern coal-fired power plants, like KCP&L’s latan 2, that trap emissions of sulfur, mercury, and particulate matter. I also favor expanded natural gas production to help lower electricity costs. And I hope that technological breakthroughs can keep improving the electricity storage capacity for wind turbines and solar panels.
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Overall, my focus is: How can we keep reliably and responsibly generating sufficient power to meet our state’s growing electricity needs? Ironically, it’s a question that seems to be percolating through Washington right now, too. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been in the news of late, urging that America act now to ensure each state’s future “baseload” power needs.
It’s not something we think about often, but America has huge energy demands. We simply trust that electricity will always be there when we need it. However, the baseload power that undergirds the nation’s daily operational electricity needs has actually shrunk significantly in recent years. Since 2010, more than 60 gigawatts of coal capacity has disappeared—enough electricity to power 40 million homes. And at the same time, the nuclear industry has had its own troubles, with heavy costs making it difficult to replace retiring nuclear plants.
Perry is proposing that the U.S. adopt a new pricing mechanism that would recognize the value of coal and nuclear plants in serving as the bulwark of the nation’s electric grid. Essentially, coal and nuclear are the only two power sources capable of maintaining lengthy on-site fuel supplies while also generating large, non-stop amounts of electricity for weeks and months at a time.
It’s a controversial notion, of course — keeping coal and nuclear plants in the mix. But it’s also a very realistic assessment of what’s working right now. Environmentalists are no doubt excited about the prospects for wind and solar. But the output of these renewables remains limited, and is also constrained by the need for steady wind and clear skies. Equally challenging is the dependence of natural gas plants on continuous fuel supplies from an intricate spiderweb of lengthy, nationwide pipelines.
Even as technology is yielding new advances in renewable energy — or even higher efficiencies for coal and gas plants — we need to remain focused on what can guarantee sufficient electricity right here, right now. And so, while the bridge to a more diverse energy future is slowly emerging, Perry is wise to take a thoughtful approach to keeping the lights on. It may not seem like a pressing issue, but it’s important to plan for the unexpected times when winter storms or hurricanes lead to unforeseen spikes in electricity demand and even power outages.
Overall, I’m optimistic about Missouri’s energy future. But we should continue to secure the baseload power that supports our current, daily needs.
Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.