“… most folks don’t understand the reduced reliability of natural gas when temperatures hover below zero for long. Therefore, the most reliable source of energy, at least in Oklahoma, is coal.”
Just as Joe Biden was blathering about the “existential threat” from climate change and the need to move away from fossil fuels to “green energy,” along came a frigid cold snap never experienced before by anyone alive today in states like Texas and Oklahoma.
Why are those two states significant? Of all the states, Texas is the largest producer of wind energy, and Oklahoma is second. Wind factories (not farms—those are where you grow crops and livestock), promoted by climate-change alarmists, failed miserably under such extreme cold temperatures. This should be a wakeup call to the dangers of the “Green New Deal” to America and its people.
Wind Joins the Energy Mix …
Over the past 15 years or so, those in the wind business have carved out a significant position and huge profits among electricity producers by obtaining federal and state subsidies and tax breaks. Oklahoma has halted subsidies for new projects, but subsidized projects begun years ago with multi-year benefits still line the pockets of those in the industry.
Oklahoma produces little solar energy, but the brutal cold, with several cloudy days and near-record snowfall, nearly eliminated its contribution to electricity generation.
… Unprecedented Blackout
What has been the result of all this energy failure? Rolling blackouts in Texas and, for the first time in state history, Oklahoma.
Emergency management officials and elected officials have pleaded with folks to conserve energy. Water pipes have frozen, heating systems have failed, and folks have made a run on portable space heaters that inefficiently use lots of electric power. Even the giant Goodyear Tire Plant in Lawton was ordered to shut down because it was using too much natural gas producing new tires.
So why the shortages in states like Texas and Oklahoma, which have massive amounts of natural gas, which is now the main source for electricity? After all, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the regulatory body for the oil, gas, and electric utility industries, requires electric utilities to maintain adequate traditional baseload capacity for electric generation during peak demand. That requirement is because of the unreliability of wind and solar generation.
Always in the past, peak loads would occur during hot summer days without even a whisper of wind. On such days, Oklahoma’s largest electric utility would supply enough electricity for peak demand from coal- and natural gas-fired generation plants. This has not been a problem in the past, as most of the gas plants are efficient and capable of coming on line or shutting down quickly when demand surges or drops.
However, natural gas is unreliable in extreme cold. Because of its moisture content, when it gets really cold, valves freeze at well heads, and short-term gas shortages occur for both residential customers and electric generating utilities. Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) prefers a mix of generating fuels. But there are no nuclear power plants in Oklahoma, very little hydroelectric production, and very little solar. Therefore, the mix is of coal, natural gas, and wind.
Anyone can understand that wind and solar are unreliable—they don’t work when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. But most folks don’t understand the reduced reliability of natural gas when temperatures hover below zero for long.
Therefore, the most reliable source of energy, at least in Oklahoma, is coal. The electric utilities should have known this. So, why have they been converting coal-fired units to natural gas? This is an especially pertinent question since the coal-fired plants in Oklahoma are mostly modern and efficient and use only low-sulfur coal. That means about all they emit from their stacks are water vapor and CO2.
Just the mention of CO2 will cause climate-change alarmists to freak out about an “existential threat” from global warming. The truth is, as E. Calvin Beisner of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation often says, CO2 is the elixir of life, essential to plant growth and the production of food, both plant food and meat.
Warming from adding CO2 to the atmosphere occurs mostly toward the poles, mostly in winter, and mostly at night, raising low temperatures. That lengthens growing seasons, and expands crop ranges to higher latitudes and altitudes, and reduces temperature-related mortality.
Whenever you hear about the costs of climate change, in short, remember the benefits.
Aubrey McClendon Nixes Coal Plant
Back to our question: Why did Oklahoma utility companies reduce the amount of power they produce from coal, leaving us excessively vulnerable to the severe cold we’ve just experienced? Ten or more years ago OG&E, Public Service Company of Oklahoma (PSO), and the Municipal Power Authority wanted to try something new: share the costs of building a new coal-fired power plant to serve their respective customers.
The plan was to build a new European-designed, super-clean-burning coal plant made even cleaner by using low-sulfur coal. The unit was to be built next to existing units at OG&E’s Red Rock plant.
An expert working for the Corporation Commission estimated that rate payers would save $100 million in construction costs against the cost of three separate units and nearly $1 billion in operating costs over the life of the plant. It was a great deal for ratepayers and promised more reliable electricity in cold snaps. All that was needed was for two of the three Corporation Commissioners to give final approval.
However, Aubrey McClendon, then CEO of Chesapeake Energy, stood to gain from more plants using natural gas. He spent an estimated $3 to $4 million to stop the project. The commissioners voted 2 to 1 against the plan. Without a shift in thinking to true science, we will probably not build any new coal-fired power plants in Oklahoma.
It gets worse. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wanted to take things further. Misusing the federal Clean Air Act, it suggested there was a growing haze problem covering the Quartz Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. It suggested the haze came from emissions from the coal-fired plants in northeastern Oklahoma.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt fought the EPA’s federal overreach valiantly. I testified at one of the public hearings, pointing out that it was unlikely that air pollution would travel at least 180 miles against prevailing winds to cause the haze.
In the end, both OG&E and PSO agreed to reduce the amount of electricity produced by converting some of their existing coal-fired generation capacity to natural gas. In addition, OG&E was forced to install expensive scrubbers on the remaining coal-fired generators, even though their benefit would be minimal at the least.
The debacle of the cold snap of February 2021 in Oklahoma was the result.
Will we learn anything from this about how any reliance on wind and solar, and excessive reliance on natural gas, threaten the stability of power grid? One would hope so. The real problem is the false narrative spread by radical environmental alarmists.
Because of technological advances, coal does not have to harm the environment. To maintain a stable grid and avoid the life-threatening blackouts just experienced, we need more electricity from coal, not less. Not only is the price of such energy more stable and not subject to the spikes many people will see on their next few gas and electric bills; we can avoid future rolling blackouts that kill people, harm the economy, and cause many to suffer extreme hardships.
Charlie Meadows is Co-Founder and President Emeritus of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee (OCPAC), the oldest, largest, and most active conservative club in Oklahoma. [For more information, see here.]