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Power distributor shares concerns over grid reliability with Ky. lawmakers

Solar Panels on the Mall St. Matthews on December 12, 2019.
Solar Panels on the Mall St. Matthews on December 12, 2019.

One of the country’s largest electricity transmission operators warned Kentucky lawmakers Thursday that coal-fired power plants are retiring faster than new renewable energy is coming online to replace it. 

In a meeting with state lawmakers on Thursday, the official told Kentucky lawmakers it could begin to face capacity shortfalls next year, leading to rolling blackouts and brownouts.  

“Unless more capacity is built or bought, especially capacity able to reliably generate during tight system conditions, the shortfalls we experience this year will continue and get worse going forward,” said Melissa Seymour, MISO external affairs vice president. 

MISO stands for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, one of a number of non-profit regional transmission operators that helps move power across the country. MISO’s network only covers about 14% of retail sales in Kentucky. And the state as a whole is not seeing the capacity gaps that are forecast in other parts of the country. 

Still, many of Kentucky’s coal-fired power plants are reaching the end of their useful lifespans. The aging plants, combined with the associated costs of environmental pollution, are leading many utilities to retire their coal-fired generating units and replace them with a combination of renewables and natural gas. 

Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities, which serves much of Kentucky, are planning to retire around a dozen aging and outdated coal and natural gas generating units over the next 15 years, according to their Integrated Resource Plan.

In the meeting, several lawmakers said the state should consider producing more coal, limit retirements and even consider bringing more coal-fired power plants out of retirement. 

Seymour said it takes a larger volume of renewable power to make up for the reliability and dependability of “traditional” energy from fossil fuels like coal. That’s because renewables like solar and wind only produce power when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and the capacity of battery storage is not yet as dependable as fossil fuels, she said. 

Republican Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, a climate denier, said the reliability of Kentucky’s energy grid is thanks to fossil fuels, particularly coal. He said the decline in coal retirements isn’t sustainable. 

"It's pretty astounding the amount we are looking to take offline this year,” Gooch said. 

Republican Rep. John Blanton Salyersville said Kentucky is producing "the cleanest coal we've ever produced" and that the energy transition to renewables like solar and wind will spell trouble for the state. Blanton blamed the “woke agenda” for the transition to green energy. 

The science however, has never been more clear. Since the dawn of the industrial era, humankind’s burning of fossil fuels has increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide by about 50% -- more than happened naturally in the last 20,000 years, according to NASA.

Scientists with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say this decade is humankind’s last chance to limit warming to at least 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but it will require deep emissions cuts and a major transition in the energy sector. 

Neither lawmakers nor the MISO representative brought up climate change or the connection between the continued burning of fossil fuels and catastrophic, irreversible impacts on our planet and humanity.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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