It’s amazing what a polar vortex – or you can call it just a really cold spell in midwinter – can do. It can make Al Franken, Minnesota Democratic Senator, realize that grid security is no laughing matter. And staying warm and keeping the lights on when it’s below zero is far from a laughing matter. At issue is the EPA’s enforcement of emission standards that already have shut down around 20% of coal-fired power plants and could easily shutter another 20%. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy admits “it is an increasing challenge to maintain a reliable energy supply.” Is she backpedalling in the face of criticism from both sides of the aisle in Congress? Joe Manchin, Democratic Senator form West Virginia — where coal creates jobs — worries “how do we keep the lights on so people’s lives won’t be in danger?”

In other words, how important to the national grid are the coal-fired power plants? According to Lisa Murkowski, Republican Senator for Alaska, almost 90% of coal electricity that backed up the grid during the frigid weather this winter is due to be shut down. How would the grid cope with another cold snap without the current capacity produced by coal? It seems from Minnesota to West Virginia and parts elsewhere, people aren’t too eager to find out. Legislation in 1990 helped bring about reductions in coal power plant emissions but what worried environmentalists a few years back in 2008 was the contribution to global warming those same plants apparently make. “No coal plant can control its emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide,” Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, stated back then. We now have Climate Change rather than Global Warming and the former conveniently includes subzero weather in its worldview. Yes, coal-fired power plants need to continue to invest in clean technology – someday carbon capture and sequestration might even be a workable solution – but a significant shutdown of coal electricity generation will hopefully have to wait until the USA’s grid has enough reliable power to enable voters to keep their heaters and lights on in the middle of winter.

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