December Winter Storm Once Again Shows Importance of Natural Gas for Grid Reliability

Natural gas has proven to be an essential resource to deliver reliable, on-demand energy to consumers during extreme weather events.

In the most recent event, Winter Storm Elliot, natural gas power generation supported intermittent renewable energy sources and supplied residents with the space heating needed to weather the extended freeze. Despite this, state and local leaders are increasingly looking to electrify space heating, an issue that grid managers are warning against.

Meeting Reliability Demands

Ineffective governmental policies, as well as increased use of non-dispatchable energy sources have led to U.S. electrical grids’ increased struggle with reliability, something that was blatantly clear in December as grid operators across the country issued warnings asking consumers to limit energy use. NPR reports that the U.S. electrical grid of many communities was saved during Winter Storm Elliot by a series of lucky coincidences – demand was lower because of the holidays, the storm hit earlier in the season when natural gas stockpiles were high, and the storm was moving, which allowed other less affected regions to supply more impacted areas with additional power supplies.

However, while this string of lucky breaks benefited the electric grid this December, they are not guaranteed in the future.

Numerous states are increasingly concerned about reliability, particularly as the number of natural gas generation retirements and push for renewable replacements puts additional strain on the electrical grid. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation warned in December 2022 of potential electric supply shortfalls during prolonged periods of low winter temperatures, while the Electric Reliability Corp. said California and parts of the Midwest are at risk of facing serious energy shortfalls during peak demand periods from 2023 to 2027.

Bloomberg highlights the fragility of an energy grid that reduces supplies of natural gas, noting:

“The Midwest and Northeast — two areas that should be well-prepared. The fact that they weren’t highlights the flaws of a system that’s facing limited natural gas supplies and the unpredictability of solar and wind power.”

Energy experts also agree that natural gas continues to play an important role for grid reliability, with International Energy Agency Executive Director, Dr. Faith Birol, emphasizing that “natural gas is one of the mainstays of global energy.”

Grid and Peak Demand

States and municipalities across the United States are touting idealized notions of banning natural gas in favor of fully electrifying the power grid without fully understanding the risks. During the winter storm, more than 1.6 million electric customers were without power across the country, a trend that many experts forecast will continue in fully electric grids.

For example, in Buffalo, New York, according to the city’s electricity provider, National Grid, an estimated 20,000 customers were without power, resulting in the city’s two warming centers being without electricity as the city was buried in snow. This comes as New York Governor Kathy Hochul has expressed continued support for a state ban on fossil fuel hookups. New York Independent System Operator Vice President of Operations Aaron Markham has expressed concerns over this replacement, noting:

“Intermittent resources such as solar and wind are not fully dispatchable. From a reliability perspective, [the renewable additions] are not a one-for-one replacement for the fossil resources being retired.”

Similarly, throughout the South, the states most impacted by extreme winter weather and blackouts have increased their reliance on electricity over the past decade. Bloomberg reports that Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina saw a roughly 20% increase in the number of households using electric heat from 2009 to 2020, with this transition shifting peak demand curves to occur both in the summer and the winter,  leading to power grids in these regions being ill-prepared to reliably meet demand. As Bloomberg explains:

“The states hit hardest by blackouts in last week’s winter storm have significantly increased reliance on heating homes with electricity over the last decade, putting more strain on the power grid when temperatures plummet.”

Chief Executive of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the FERC, Pat Wood, explains:

“We have moved too swiftly over the past two decades to electrify residential heating. When that is combined with poorly insulated housing and low-efficiency appliances, we tax all of our resources across the board.”

While Southern states are among the first experiencing the consequences of this transition and peak demand shifting, this trend is happening across the United States.

A new PJM Interconnection report concluded that the elimination of fossil fuel power generation in Illinois throughout the next 20 years will leave the greater-Chicago area without enough power to meet demands, resulting in reliance on surrounding states for the first time in modern history. The Energy and Environmental Economic Inc. (E3) accurately portrays the reality of this trend in Illinois, concluding that a transition to electricity would shift peak demand from summer to winter. Moreover, a study revealed that to fully meet the state’s net-zero targets, an additional 6.5 million residential homes and 12 million electric vehicles will be added to the electric grid throughout Illinois, adding to an already stressed grid – thus, increasing the risk of blackouts and putting more consumers at risk.

Bottomline: Power grids across the United States require a robust and healthy energy mix to ensure safe, reliable, and affordable power is delivered to consumers, especially during peak demand and extreme weather events. While natural gas often works in harmony with renewables, replacing it altogether is not a one-to-one transition. Failing to include natural gas generation in future energy forecasts will only lead to more blackouts, to the detriment of many homeowners and businesses.

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