Shared from the 5/26/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition


It’s a blip; we don’t need to rescue coal plants

As summer heats up, so will concerns about electricity in Texas. ERCOT, which manages the power grid for most of the state, projects a record tight margin between supply and demand. Closures of coal power plants have crimped supply, while a booming economy drives up demand.

For this summer, we’ll need all the power we can get, including from the coal plants that remain. That’s the only way we’ll keep our lights on and our air conditioners humming affordably.

But we would be foolish to draw the wrong lessons from a single tight summer. With the right choices, Texans are poised to enjoy cleaner and more affordable electricity for decades to come.

Defenders of the recent past neglect its woes. Texas power prices may seem cheap, ranking below most states. But since our homes are relatively inefficient, our typical monthly bills exceed the national average.

We pay even more for electricity with our health. Power plants in Texas emit more lung-harming sulfur and climate-warming carbon than in any other state. Some aging plants, including one in Fort Bend County, still operate without sulfur scrubbers that have been required of new plants for four decades. Our research has shown that their pollution kills hundreds of people each year.

Help is on the way. Wind and solar power already supply 20 percent of electricity in ERCOT. Renewable energy companies have submitted plans to build tens of thousands of megawatts of new wind and solar farms. Even if only a fraction of those farms are built, it would provide more than enough electricity to replace all of the state’s dirtiest coal plants. That’s before accounting for any additional wind, solar, or geothermal plants that get proposed in future years.

But, you might ask, won’t we have trouble keeping the lights on? After all, the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine.

Fortunately, here in Texas, it’s usually windy or sunny somewhere. Winds in west Texas blow most strongly at night. Sea breezes along the south Texas coast are strongest on summer afternoons. Sunshine peaks midday, and tends to be bright on stagnant summer days when winds slow down and our air conditioners need it most. Put them all together, and our research shows you can cover the vast majority of hours of the year.

What about the other hours? For now, natural gas power plants can fill in, adjusting their output to balance gaps between fluctuating supply and demand. Natural gas is for now our largest source of electricity, supplemented by nuclear power. That can keep electricity reliable and affordable while coal plants continue to close.

Longer term, there are many ways to wean ourselves off natural gas. We can make our homes and offices more efficient; shift demand away from peak hours; build battery storage; and construct power lines linking wind and solar farms and bringing their power to cities and factories. Together, those approaches could bring us clean, reliable, and affordable electricity.

What we certainly don’t need is to waste Texans’ money on coal plants. They’ve been polluting our air and water and warming our climate for far too long. Most are losing money despite polluting for free. Rescuing them would only crowd out new wind and solar farms and dampen the impetus to pursue long-term solutions.

In a state blessed with some of the strongest winds and sunshine in the country, we can do better than pollute ourselves with coal from Wyoming. Market forces are already pushing us toward cleaner electricity. Once we get through this tight summer, let’s not let bailouts stand in their way.

Cohan is an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice


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