Whitfield, Waxman battle along familiar coal vs. greenhouse gas lines

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, used a May 9 subcommittee hearing on power grid reliability issues to tout the coal-fired power industry as a key to that reliability.

Kentucky, his home state, is a major coal producer and also relies heavily on coal-fired generation. The hearing was called, “American Energy Security and Innovation: Grid Reliability Challenges in a Shifting Energy Resource Landscape.”

In his opening remarks, Whitfield said: “The proportion of electricity we get from coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, and non-hydro renewables has remained relatively constant over the last several decades. Most significantly, we are seeing a sharp drop in coal use and its replacement with natural gas. Part of this is due to market forces, namely the increased supply and relatively low price of domestic natural gas. But part is also the result of policy decisions made in Washington, particularly EPA’s regulatory attack on coal.”

He added: “I for one strongly oppose EPA’s regulatory onslaught and will continue to fight against these anti-coal rules. But the point of this hearing is that these changes to the generation mix are occurring, and it is important that we think through what must be done to ensure that the lights stay on and that electric bills are affordable in the years ahead.”

Whitfield also questioned the reliability of renewable wind and solar power, which has gotten a boost in recent years through Obama Administration incentives.

“The federal and state policies that have given a boost to wind and solar power could easily backfire if we don’t address the difficulties of integrating these intermittent sources into the electric grid,” he said. “Homeowners and businesses need electricity whether or not the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and the supply at any moment must match the demand. This is nearly impossible to do with intermittent renewables that are not readily available.”

Waxman says greenhouse gas reduction is a top priority

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the full Energy and Commerce Committee, focused his opening statement on grid reliability and a parallel need (some in the coal industry would say these are mutually exclusive needs) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Today, the Subcommittee is holding its third hearing on America’s evolving electricity generation portfolio,” Waxman said. “There is no question that a significant transition is underway. Renewable energy policies are paying off. We have doubled our capacity to generate renewable electricity from wind and solar in just four years. Cheap natural gas is also helping to transform our electricity sector. This market reality is causing some utilities to replace their oldest, dirtiest, and least efficient coal plants with natural gas generation. These are positive developments.”

But, Waxman added, these changes also create challenges for the electric grid. The testimony from the prior hearings showed that these issues are manageable and that both regulators and grid operators are focused on them, he added.

“Yet there has been no focus from the Republican members on the bigger challenges posed by climate change,” Waxman stated. “They offer no solutions … no ideas for cutting carbon pollution or deploying more clean energy generation. Instead, they attack EPA’s air quality standards and lament the loss of coal’s market share. There is a confused aspect to these hearings. Some Republican members cannot seem to decide whether they like cheap natural gas or see it as a threat that must be overcome to protect the coal industry. They seem unsure whether they should be celebrating reduced carbon pollution or avoiding the issue altogether. This confusion is not surprising because the Subcommittee still hasn’t examined why this transition in our energy sector must occur. Climate change is the biggest energy challenge we face as a country. We can’t have a meaningful discussion of the transition underway in the energy sector without understanding the threat of climate change.”

As a result of increased renewable energy generation, a shift from coal to natural gas generation, and the economic recession, U.S. emissions from the energy sector have dropped in recent years, Waxman pointed out. But total U.S. emissions from all sources – not just the power sector – actually increased from 2009 to 2011. “What matters most is whether U.S. emissions are on track to decline in the future by the amount needed to prevent dangerous climate change,” he said. “No reputable expert believes this to be the case.”

The GOP majority appears to have called the May 9 hearing, in part, to invite attacks on renewable energy, Waxman said. “If we’re going to hear from opponents of renewable energy and critics of EPA’s proposed standard to reduce carbon pollution from new power plants, we should hear from the scientists and technical experts who can explain why it is so important for the United States to reduce its carbon pollution,” he added. “We should hear from witnesses who can inform the Subcommittee about the dangers of man-made climate change and the closing window for effective action. The threat of climate change is not going to disappear if we pretend it doesn’t exist. We need to start recognizing reality and crafting responsible solutions.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.