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Trump’s Bailout of Coal and Nuclear Plants Could Cause Thousands of Early Deaths, Send Utility Bills Soaring

Friday, June 8, 2018

In his continuing crusade to prop up dying industries, President Trump wants to make Americans pay for expensive electricity from dirty, dangerous coal and nuclear power plants – even if cheaper, cleaner and safer sources are available. The political payback to his friends in these industries could contribute to tens of thousands of premature deaths and cost Americans billions of dollars.

Last week, Trump ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to head off the closure of coal and nuclear plants that are losing money because they can’t compete economically with power from solar, wind or natural gas. A leaked Department of Energy memo revealed a scheme to declare a national emergency on the grounds that the nation’s security requires keeping the plants open to ensure a reliable supply of electricity. If implemented, operators of regional power grids would be required to buy a certain percentage of electricity from coal and nuclear plants.

But the so-called emergency doesn’t exist.

“There is no need for such drastic action,” PJM, the largest electricity grid operator in the country, told Politico. “Any federal intervention in the market to order customers to buy electricity from specific power plants would be damaging to the markets and therefore costly to consumers.”

How costly? When Perry proposed a similar bailout scheme in November, energy analysts said it would have added more than more than $10 billion a year to utility customers’ bills and contribute to an estimated 27,000 premature deaths from air pollution in the next 25 years.

Trump and Perry’s argument is that coal and nuclear power plants store weeks of fuel supply on-site, making them resilient against blackouts. But most blackouts occur due to power line damage and have little to do with on-site fuel supply. And coal and nuclear plants contribute less to system resiliency than other resources.

Restarting coal and nuclear plants that shut down during storms is a slow process – it can take up to two weeks for a nuclear plant and anywhere from 13 to 75 hours for coal plants to start generating power. And the older a coal plant is, the more often breaks down.

The more resilient energy sources are wind and solar. Wind turbines can keep operating unless they are catastrophically damaged. Solar panels will soon have the same capability. California has mandated that solar arrays have the ability to continue operating if the electric system fails.

The real threat to national security is the continued use of coal for generating electricity. Coal is a major contributor to climate change. Unlike the Trump administration climate change deniers, the Department of Defense wrote in a 2015 report to Congress that it is “clear climate change is an urgent threat to our national security.” 

The real solution to electric system resiliency is building microgrids. These are smaller electric grids within the larger electric system. The DOD is interested in building microgrids at military bases to sustain power if the larger grid collapses. There are currently about 2,000 microgrids worldwide, including some in the U.S.

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