Coal magnate Robert Murray started his speech on a conciliatory tone at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit in New York on Tuesday.
The founder and CEO of Murray Energy Corporation, the largest coal mining company in America, noted that he believes in "all forms of energy."
"That includes power production utilizing coal, nuclear, natural gas, wind, solar and other sources," he said. "All of them.”
The neutral tone didn't last long.
Murray, an ardent coal advocate and President Trump supporter, quickly pivoted to politics, pointing out coal made up 53 percent of the U.S. electricity mix when President Obama took office and makes up around 30 percent of the energy mix today.
The U.S. closed 531 coal-fired plants totaling 55,000 megawatts over the last nine years, he said, citing EIA figures for closures through 2016. Between 13,000 and 20,000 megawatts are projected to close in next five years, Murray added.
In PJM Interconnection territory alone, which covers 13 states and 65 million citizens, 11,000 megawatts of coal-fired electricity have been shuttered in the last five years — a figure cited by Ohio-based utility FirstEnergy. And another 20,000 megawatts of baseload capacity in PJM is being contemplated for closure, according to Murray.
"The steep decline has been caused by the increased utilization of natural gas, tremendous taxpayer subsidies for so-called renewable energy resources, and excess regulation of coal mining and utilization by the Obama administration — much of that illegal," he said.
These factors have caused energy markets to become "distorted" and biased against reliable, baseload coal-fired and nuclear plants, Murray added.
That exact concept formed the premise of a grid reliability study Energy Secretary Rick Perry tasked his agency with one year ago. It was also the crux of a proposal Perry submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) seeking cost recovery status for power plants with 90 days of fuel supply on hand — something that applies specifically to coal and nuclear plants.
Murray criticized FERC for rejecting the DOE's proposal earlier this year, claiming the decision puts the U.S. grid on the brink of collapse.
Twenty-two people died during the brutal winter storm that hit the East Coast in late December, when roughly 2 million people lost power in an outage that lasted 12 days. During that storm, coal provided a majority of the daily power generation required to meet emergency energy needs, according to a study Murray referenced that was conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.
If U.S. coal generation goes any lower, “people are going to die in the dark,” he said.
DOE emergency support "absolutely needed"
The NETL report found that coal provided 55 percent of the incremental daily generation needed during the "bomb cyclone" weather event across the six independent system operators studied. Coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy plants combined provided 89 percent of electricity across all of the ISOs, with the vast majority of that coming from coal, with a meaningful contribution from oil-firing units.
Because of a surge in heating demand and pipeline congestion, natural gas did not add resilient capacity in three of the ISOs studied. Available wind energy was 12 percent lower during the storm than on a typical winter day, resulting in the need for dispatchable fossil fuel generation to meet demand during the event. Nuclear did not add additional capacity during the event, but operated at maximum output.
NETL calculated the "resilience value" for the energy contributions made during the storm to be $3.5 billion, or $98 per megawatt and $288 million per day.
"There are only two types of baseload power generation: nuclear and coal," said Murray. "You cannot store wind at a power plant; you cannot store solar at a power plant; you cannot even store gas."
Clean energy advocates and grid experts have pointed out that renewables coupled with energy storage can offer reliable electricity during emergencies. At the same time, coal and nuclear have their own failings. During the 2014 polar vortex event, many coal piles froze over, rendering coal plants unusable, while a nuclear facility had to be powered down during the nor'easter in January.
Murray reiterated that all energy resources need to play a role on America's grid, but was unflinching in his support for nuclear and coal. He flatly denied that coal piles have frozen over in recent storms, adding that baseload generation is the only reliable form of backup power.
FirstEnergy's Section 202(c) request for emergency support from the DOE is "the right step in making sure we don’t set ourselves up for grid collapses, which we are," he said.
The emergency support is "absolutely needed," Murray added, even if just for a limited period of time to shore up existing power plants.
The DOE is currently weighing FirstEnergy's request. Speaking at the BNEF Summit on Monday, however, Secretary Perry expressed reluctance to invoke the DOE's emergency authority.
Murray described failing to prevent the onslaught of coal and nuclear plant closures in grim terms.
"We have a responsibility in this room to make sure Grandma doesn’t die on the operating table," he said.