Don’t take reliable energy for granted

We often take the most important aspects of our lives for granted. This is clearly the case with the U.S. electricity grid. Electricity supply has always been defined as “for the public good,” but over the past decade, we have methodically been retiring the most reliable, resilient and cost-effective base-load sources of electricity — coal and nuclear power plants, which can store at least 30 days worth of fuel on site — and replaced them with alternatives that cannot provide electric service as reliably. The resulting vulnerability subjects Americans to increased exposure of disruptions that could hobble local economies and leave some communities in the dark.

Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Energy recently proposed a solution that would help compensate for years of neglect by policymakers in Washington who chose pathways that failed to consider our electricity grid’s long-term resiliency. Energy Secretary Rick Perry wants to support energy reliability and resiliency, and enable coal and nuclear plants to recover the costs of marketplace imbalances that favor less reliable forms of generation. The scales are already tipped; this is nothing more than leveling the playing field.

This marketplace imbalance has created a massive disincentive for companies to run more reliable and affordable coal and nuclear plants in favor of less reliable wind, solar and natural gas — none of which has on-site fuel and which are all inherently less resilient. This solution is not about “saving coal and nuclear” — it is about a purposeful and thoughtful approach to an energy portfolio that will serve the public good and ensure resiliency. We should celebrate diversity of supply and not take our lifestyle for granted.

Most Americans don’t think much about electricity. It charges our phones and turns the lights on when we flick a switch. When it works, there isn’t much reason to think about it. We have been lucky to avoid major catastrophes, but we're mixing in more and more ingredients for an outage that could disrupt life for millions.

Not thinking about it creates a dangerous blind spot. Because most of us take electricity for granted, very few Americans understand our electricity supply is steaming toward this crisis. As with many crises, we may be wishing we had taken early preventative action. Analysts who try to wish our electricity system into resiliency and reliability without these traditional base-load power plants are a big concern. It can be uncomfortable to face facts honestly.

As the assistant secretary of Energy under former President Barack Obama, I witnessed firsthand the neglect of electric reliability and resilience by federal government agencies that routinely took for granted this important aspect of our well-being. I feel strongly that federal regulators need to correct past mistakes, ensure the long-term sustainability of our power grid and pursue a diverse portfolio that ensures resiliency, reliability, affordability and sustainability that keeps our country so strong and vibrant. I believe that should include coal and nuclear power.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Charles D. McConnell

Executive director, Energy and Environment Initiative, Rice University.