As the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold, it’s clear that we’re living in a new world. We have learned very quickly that we simply cannot take for granted the resilience of our critical infrastructure. A sometimes overlooked but an essential piece of that infrastructure is America’s mines, our miners and our coal fleet.
The minerals pulled from our mines are the building blocks to nearly everything our modern society relies on, including vital medical equipment. The coal produced from our mines is used to make our steel and keep the lights on in homes and hospitals.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in fact recognizes mining as one of 16 critical infrastructure sectors that must keep working during the coronavirus outbreak. As DHS sees it, the nation is reliant on workers who can maintain “the generation, transmission and distribution of electric power.” And that includes coal — which DHS considers as “critical to ensuring the reliability of the electrical system” at many of the nation’s largest generating stations.
In recent years, there have been utopian calls for a mass shift to wind and solar power. But the current crisis has reminded us that we must place a premium on the fuels and power sources that underpin reliability, resilience and security. In other words, those fuels that keep the grid running without distraction or interruption.
Right now, coal supplies a quarter of America’s electricity. But in many states, it remains the workhorse fuel for electricity generation. And even in states where coal isn’t necessarily the dominant fuel, it continues to play a largely unheralded role in supporting grid reliability at times when demand peaks and other sources of power haven’t been able to rise to the occasion.
The U.S. coal fleet has already proven invaluable during bitter cold. It could prove invaluable during the next crisis, be that a pandemic, pipeline failure or cyberattack on our energy infrastructure. With months of fuel on-site, coal plants offer the grid fuel security and resilience we must not take for granted.
Many essential industries are going to face profound challenges in the months ahead. With much of the country in lockdown, energy demand will be affected and there will be added pressure placed on already undervalued coal plants. Some U.S. mines will have to make tough choices about idling production in response to these extraordinary market conditions. However, these near-term conditions should not be allowed to define the nature of an industry or the balance of the nation’s electricity mix.
Coal generation has taken on a role as guarantor of reliability and resilience. It’s a role no other player is prepared or capable of stepping into. In this extraordinary moment, when energy markets are being turned upside down, policymakers must make sure that the irreplaceable doesn’t slip through the cracks. Smart policy will ensure that the coal generation we count on and the mines that support it remain a critical piece of our infrastructure well into the future.
Conor Bernstein is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.