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During Bitter Cold Coal Comes to the Rescue Again



April 9, 2024 - When the polar vortex slammed much of the country in January, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) member Mark Christie spoke up about the irreplaceable role dispatchable capacity, namely coal and gas, played in keeping the lights and heat on when power demand peaked. Now, a new report from Energy Ventures Analysis (EVA) goes deeper into the numbers, underscoring just how irreplaceable that dispatchable capacity was across the country as demand soared.  

What EVA found is telling: Coal and gas rose to the occasion while wind faced huge fluctuations in availability and solar “was entirely or almost entirely absent during peak electricity demand hours.”


EVA’s analysis compared the performance of each energy source during early January before the arrival of bitter cold with their performance during the peak of the weather event. Every megawatt of power was needed: the storm set new single-day electricity demand records in SPP and ERCOT and set the second-highest electricity demand records in the Southeast, the third highest in PJM, and the fourth highest in MISO.

EVA found that, “Once again, the coal power fleet was a principal source of increased power generation to meet demand during the January 2024 winter storm.” And the authors – rightfully – presented that finding with an ominous word of caution: “However, another 98 GW of coal-fired generation capacity, or more than half of the currently operational coal fleet, is announced to retire by 2035.”

In other words – and as our friends at America’s Power have also observed – the very capacity that again and again comes to the rescue during winter weather events is being driven off the grid by regulatory pressure and market failure.


The following chart shows what percentage of additional electricity was provided by fossil fuels during the hour when electricity demand peaked in each of the five evaluated regions:

The report rightfully concludes that, “without adequate and comparable replacement capacity, electric power system failures across the United States are more likely during similar extreme weather events.”

Fortunately, during this storm – unlike other winter events such as Winter Storm Elliot in 2022 – wind conditions were more favorable and wind capacity was a significant contributor during some periods of peak demand. But as the report observes, that luck hides an alarming reality: “without the favorable wind conditions during the January 2024 storm, widespread power outages would have been likely to occur.” And wind variability presented challenges during this storm. For example, in SPP, “wind generation exhibited considerable fluctuation, ranging from less than 4 GW to nearly 18 GW.” And on January 14th, when demand peaked within SPP, wind generation experienced a “notable decline.”        

Solar, for its part, was absent, a troubling indicator for the power source that is growing fastest across the country and is also eroding the economics of some of the important dispatchable capacity that kept the lights on during this storm.

The analysis found that, “during peak electricity demand hours in ERCOT and other regions, solar facilities provided zero or near-zero electricity as the peak demand hours occurred during nighttime hours. Higher shares of solar facilities and fewer dispatchable resources likely would have resulted in widespread power outages.”

FERC Commissioner Christie put a bow on what these numbers tell us when he spoke to the performance of the electricity system in January. He said, “If the pace of [dispatchable] retirements continues at the pace it is, the numbers just aren’t going to add up.” He added, “if you don’t maintain these dispatchable resources until you have an absolutely adequate replacement, we’re not going to have the success we had.” The data couldn’t be clearer about that.