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U.S. still needs electricity from coal and nuclear plants | Commentary

Closing plants prematurely could lead to a serious loss of electricity reliability, which could result in blackouts and brownouts, posing a threat to America's industries and millions of jobs.

The Longview Power Plant, a coal-burning plant in Maidsville, W.Va.
The Longview Power Plant, a coal-burning plant in Maidsville, W.Va.Read moreMichael Virtanen / Associated Press

The boom in natural gas production from shale has led to a widespread belief that the United States no longer needs nuclear and coal plants to meet the demand for electricity. That belief is wrong.

For starters, consider the continued increase in the nation's need for electricity, which the Energy Information Administration expects to grow about 20 percent by 2040. Producing enough electricity to meet this demand will be difficult if there is a further loss of nuclear and coal plants, leading to a decline in base-load electricity that's essential for grid stability, reliability, and resiliency. Reliability is dependent on plant diversity, with a substantial portion being base-loaded plants.

In Pennsylvania, a number of coal plants have closed and others are expected to be shuttered soon, replaced by low-cost natural gas and subsidized wind power. Also in jeopardy are several nuclear plants, including Three Mile Island, Beaver Valley, and Susquehanna. The same is true nationally, though at a much larger scale, with dozens of coal and nuclear plants at risk of being retired prematurely by 2020. If that happens, there could be a serious loss of electricity reliability, which could result in blackouts and brownouts, posing a threat to America's industries and millions of jobs.

But what I find most ominous is the wrongheaded belief that natural gas can replace coal and nuclear plants in the production of base-load electricity.

Since the mid-1990s, more than 80 percent of new electricity-generating capacity has relied on natural gas, despite its history of price volatility. This is no time to let coal and nuclear plants close, since natural gas supplies could be stretched thin, as the use of gas for electricity and industrial production grows and exports of liquefied natural gas increase.

Demands that the government take action to head off a crisis have been proliferating. Indeed, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is considering subsidies similar to wind and solar plants to keep financially distressed nuclear and coal plants in operation. FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee proposed that the commission make such subsidies immediately, while the commission conducts a thorough study of electricity reliability. Chatterjee has rightly pointed out that the country can't afford to let safe and efficient plants close while FERC conducts its study, which could take years.

Something else: Nuclear power is emission-free, a critically important source of clean energy that reduces air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Yes, renewables are also emission-free, but solar and wind combined supply only 7 percent of the nation's electricity, whereas nuclear power accounts for 19 percent of the electricity in the United States and 35.5 percent in Pennsylvania. Further, wind and solar plants must be backed up with coal, nuclear, and gas plants for the substantial times that wind and solar are not available.

As is so often the case, there are those who oppose the idea of government action to save certain power plants, contending that interference in the marketplace is wrong, as if it had never been done before. The government, however, subsidizes solar and wind power, and many states, including Pennsylvania, mandate the purchase of electricity from renewables whether needed or not.

What's particularly remarkable about criticism of the plan to help nuclear and coal plants is that it seems disconnected not only from the real needs of the economy, but also fails to recognize the severe job and tax losses that would result from closing down a large share of the nuclear and coal fleet.  But the failure of some to do so is no reason for inaction.

FERC now has an opportunity to act in the nation's best interest. The reliability of our electricity supply and the well-being of many families is at stake. Now is the time to prevent the loss of nuclear and coal plants.

Forrest J. Remick is emeritus professor of nuclear engineering and emeritus associate vice president for research at the Pennsylvania State University and a retired commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.