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The Podium

Coal power is not dead

The sale of two coal-burning mainstays of Massachusetts’ power generation fleet has rightly contributed to the concerns about the growing use and cost of natural gas and the state’s role as a beacon for encouraging clean energy.

Predictably, environmentalists lauded the sale of Brayton Point Station in Somerset and the Salem Harbor Station as the end of coal use in New England. Such talk of coal’s complete demise is unfortunate and potentially damaging to the stability of the region’s energy market.

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Current energy economics make it hard for coal plants to compete against low cost natural gas. The gas generation economic competition across the country, even in coal rich states, has appeared to do what decades of environmental regulation hasn’t been able to do, shutter coal plants.

At the same time, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is examining the coordination of gas supply and electric generation because the industries are not in sync. ISO-NE has identified the level of gas usage and potential gas shortage for electric generation as the most important issue facing power reliability in the region. The primary factors in maintaining reliability have been demand response by customers and generation fueled by coal and oil.

So, as we head indoors for another winter of increased natural gas use, the loss of coal generation should cause caution, not jubilation.

It’s important to keep some historical perspective:

In the 1970s, about 70 percent of the electricity in the region came from oil. When the oil embargoes hit, New England struggled with supply and high costs. It was the conversions to coal of oil units like Salem Harbor and Brayton Point that maintained the system’s reliability then and now, not to mention keeping the region’s electric rates much lower than they would have been.

If we’ve learned anything since the first oil embargo, it is that New England cannot afford to be overly dependent on any single fuel resource. Cynics need look back only as far as the Fuel Use Act of 1978, which actually banned the use of natural gas for generation of electricity. How would enforcement of that go today? Then we staked our electricity future on nuclear power, which turned out to be much more costly than originally estimated.

The enormous supply of gas makes the situation today very different but lack of pipeline capacity raises the same problem. In any event, swinging from one dominant fuel to another is unwise for our state, our region and their economies.

The growth of renewables, on-site combined heat and power plants and energy efficiency all play an important role in addressing concerns about over-reliance on natural gas. But, the aggressive pursuit of clean power technology should also include clean coal technology.

Our nation and state should embrace the potential of clean coal as part of our energy future. If for no other reason, the U.S. should develop clean coal technology to export to China so the coal they burn is cleaner. China is investing in clean coal plants in Texas. Why not New England?

A thoughtful approach is what will suit Massachusetts best and the difficult truth we have to speak is that our region can’t afford to jettison coal entirely. Surely, with all of the incentives and financial support for clean technology, Massachusetts can find a way to support the continued use of coal, in an environmentally responsible way, so as to enhance fuel diversity. While the growth of clean energy is formidable, in the near term (and possibly longer term), it may not provide the breadth of supply reliability provided today by the coal and oil units in the region.

Let’s avoid past mistakes and keep our eggs in multiple baskets. Let’s find a way to keep coal in the mix in a strategic, rational, and clean way. Our energy and economic future may very well depend on it.

Cynthia A. Arcate, a former state energy regulator, is president and chief executive officer of PowerOptions.
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