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Don't forget about coal, new Energy Department report says

A natural gas facility in Louisiana. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
A natural gas facility in Louisiana. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Coal should remain an important source of electricity in the U.S. despite the growth of renewable energy, the federal government has recommended in a highly anticipated report commissioned by Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Clean energy advocates feared that the overdue report, which was produced by experts at the Energy Department and national laboratories and released Wednesday night, would be slanted to undercut the push to phase out fossil fuels in favor of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.

On that front, the report was a mixed bag.

It notably undercut a central premise of President Trump’s energy agenda: that the coal industry be resuscitated by slashing regulations.

The blame for coal's decline rests with the low price of natural gas, a cleaner alternative.

“The biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements has been the advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation,” the report says.

But the report also recommends that more be done to increase the reliability of the U.S. electricity grid because the growing solar and wind industries produce power only when the sun shines or the wind blows. 

That conclusion upset some clean-energy advocates. 

"This report seriously overstates the challenges associated with new energy resources," said Graham Richard, CEO of Advanced Energy Economy, an association of clean energy companies.

Because coal plants can generate power constantly, the report says they should be valued as a reliable contributor to the electricity grid. It also says the federal government should loosen regulations for power plants, including coal.

Don Furman, who leads a campaign seeking more clean energy cooperation among Western states, said the recommendations were misplaced. He noted that coal plants have been shutting down without problems maintaining the electricity grid.

“If those plants were needed for reliability, then why didn’t the lights go out when they retired?” he said.

Perry said in a letter that the report would provide "the starting point for an important conversation."

“We must utilize the most effective combination of energy sources with an ‘all of the above’ approach to achieve long-term, reliable American energy security," he wrote. 

Michael Wara, a Stanford environmental law professor, called the report a “very balanced response" to Perry's "very unbalanced request" for an analysis of how regulations were hurting dirtier sources of energy.


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