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Ky. GOP lawmakers call for more coal power after winter storm failures

Ryan Van Velzer
/
LPM

Freezing temperatures knocked a portion of Kentucky’s coal and gas power offline amid Winter Storm Elliott last December, leading to rolling blackouts.

The storm swept across the country ahead of Christmas with strong winds and freezing temperatures that killed two people in Kentucky and dozens more across the U.S. An estimated 1.6 million people lost electricity across the East Coast during the event and dozens of people died.

During a recent legislative hearing reviewing power system failures, utilities and pipeline executives said the rapid onset of freezing temperatures on Dec. 23 caused malfunctions across their systems. Key components froze on a natural gas pipeline that supplies seven power plants in Kentucky.

But several Kentucky lawmakers blamed the outages on the retirement of coal power plants and the global transition to renewable and less harmful energy sources. Republican Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence said he and other lawmakers do not believe the country can have affordable, reliable power without coal.

“It doesn’t work except in someone’s mind. I mean it’s fantasy,” Gooch said.

Why utilities forced outages in Kentucky

During a recent meeting of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Natural Resources, Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities’ Chief Operating Officer Lonnie Bellar said the storm was the first time the utility implemented forced outages. The blackouts lasted for up to four hours and affected approximately 53,000 LG&E/KU ratepayers – about 5% of ratepayers.

LG&E and KU underestimated energy demand, couldn’t get the natural gas it needed and faced limited options in purchasing additional power.

“When it comes to generating units you have to have the pressure in addition to the molecules and the pressure just wasn’t there,” Bellar said.

But it wasn’t just gas, the cold weather also knocked off some of Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal power.

“We had about 7,000 megawatts of generation that went offline, about 2,600 megawatts of that was coal generation and the balance was natural gas generation,” said Tennessee Valley Authority Senior Vice President Aaron Melda.

Lawmakers blame the decline of coal 

Several Republican lawmakers blamed the outages on the retirement of coal power plants and the rise of renewable energy.

“I’m not a believer in thinking we can supply all this with windmills. It sickens me to think of our future getting away from the fossil,” said Rep. Tom Smith of Corbin.

Wind energy from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator was one of the most reliable sources of electricity in the storm, and helped supply some electricity to Kentucky utilities.

Gooch, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said a majority of lawmakers on the panel believe the real problem is the number of coal plants that have retired in recent years.

“Part of the reason that we had the shortages is because of the retirement of coal-fired power plants. Nothing you say is going to convince us otherwise,” he said.

Gooch is a long-time climate denier who says believing in climate change is akin to being part of a cult.

Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard, a Republican who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said he was more worried about the federal government closing down power plants than acts of terrorism on the electricity grid. He said federal regulations tightening pollution control standards have made coal plants too expensive to operate.

“We had 4 cents per kilowatt rate in the ‘70s and had some of the worst storms to ever hit our region and we were never without power like we are seeing now,” Smith said.

Republican Sen. Johnnie Turner of Harlan said storms have gotten worse in the last decade, and that the TVA should have planned for it by keeping more coal power online, specifically the Paradise Fossil Plant in Muhlenberg, which was retired in 2020.

“Winters are worse, the storms are worse now and have been for the last 10 years,” Turner said.

There is unequivocal evidence the planet is warming, and humans’ consumption of fossil fuels are to blame.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate’s latest report, which was authored by hundreds of scientists from dozens of countries, humanity must essentially halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in order to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees.

To ignore this limit is to “miss a rapidly closing window to secure a livable future,” the panel’s chair Hoesung Lee said in September.

Kentucky is geographically more fortunate than much of the planet when it comes to climate change, but is already facing challenges from extreme weather, including floods, tornadoes and urban heat.

The United Nations has recognized climate change as a “threat multiplier,” and says ignoring its root causes risks pushing millions of people further into poverty, food insecurity, mass migration, species extinction and global armed conflict.

Democratic Rep. Al Gentry of Louisville was one of the few lawmakers to acknowledge the existence of climate change in the meeting.

“There’s a reason we are trying to move away from more fossil fuels. You may disagree with that but there is another side of the story,” he said.

He floated the idea of creating an environmental caucus so that lawmakers could better understand how climate change is impacting Kentucky.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.