From the Washington Post
Duke Energy employees work on removing trees and restoring power to a road closed in Wilmington, N.C., after Hurricane Florence traveled through the area over the weekend. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Hurricane Florence has blown a hole in the Trump administration's argument that bolstering nuclear and coal-fired power is essential to providing reliable electricity to homes and businesses, especially during times of crisis, according to energy experts long critical of the plan.
For months, the Department of Energy has considered throwing a lifeline to that sector of the power market to make the electric grid more resilient to natural and man-made disasters. The Trump administration has been preparing to use a Cold War-era law, once marshaled by President Harry S. Truman to secure U.S. steel production, to compel regional grid operators to buy electricity from nuclear and coal plants.
The rationale is that only these two types of generation regularly have enough fuel on site to run for when national security is threatened. Wind turbines and solar panels only generate electricity when the weather is right while natural gas stations often have their fuel pipelined in from afar.
But hours before the once powerful hurricane made landfall in North Carolina on Friday, Duke Energy shut down its two reactors at the Brunswick Nuclear Plant near Wilmington, N.C. in anticipation of high winds. The temporary shutdown illustrates how many other factors beyond just fuel stored on site affect grid reliability.
"There are so many flaws to their argument, we hardly need this to add," said David Hart, professor of public policy at George Mason University. "There are lots of better ways to get reliability than to stockpile a lot of fuel."
One cause of power outages is, of course, downed power lines. According to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, trees falling on local distribution lines cause most storm-related power outages. Damage to transmission lines, the main arteries of the electric grid, tend to cause major outages.
The delivery system for electricity, rather than its source, tends to be what is most vulnerable during storms.
Christine Tezak, managing director of research at ClearView Energy Partners, said that "outages under these circumstances are more grid-related than generation-related, and don’t seem to provide compelling data for or against any generation resource."
In the case of the Brunswick plant, while floodwaters have not breached the facility, located 4 miles from the Atlantic, safety officials still do not want to run the plant after the storm until flooding subsided and roads are accessible, in case the facility and surrounding area needed to be evacuated in the unlikely event of severe disaster at the plant.
"Many of the roads leading to the plant are not passable," said Joey Ledford, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Over the weekend, that independent agency, which regulates nuclear safety, declared a “hazardous event” due to difficulty Duke Energy workers were having getting to the reactors.
As of 11 p.m. Monday night, 223,000 Duke Energy customers remained without power.
Other extreme weather events can hamper power generation at its source, no matter how they produce electricity. Strong winds can send solar panels flying. Cold snaps can freeze stockpiles of coal.
When it comes to hurricanes, the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association for the U.S. nuclear business, argued that the hulking concrete buildings that house reactors handle high winds particularly well, allowing them to usually restart more quickly than their competitors after hurricanes.
"The real question isn't whether you can run all the way through an event," said Matt Wald, a spokesman for the group. "The real question is, if you shut down, how fast can you come back."
He added that in Puerto Rico, for example, last year's Hurricane Maria "shredded everything, including wind turbines and solar panels." The territory does not have any nuclear power plants.
The Energy Department has yet to detail exactly what the plan to bolster coal and nuclear will look like after Trump ordered aid in June. The request comes as expensive coal and nuclear assets are retiring across the country in the face of competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy resources.
In a speech that month, Energy Secretary Rick Perry suggested that the slew of retirements, "if unchecked, will threaten our ability to recover from intentional attacks and natural disasters," according to the Associated Press.
Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser to the Bill Clinton White House, said it is particularly perverse to include coal power in the bailout plan given the contribution its emissions make to climate change, which in turn fuels fiercer storms like Florence.
"Claiming that coal and nuclear, if only they were more dispatchable, they would prevent most blackouts is laughable if it weren't potentially tragic," Bledsoe said.