Extreme Weather Shows Need For Diversified Power Grid That Includes Natural Gas
Recent weather events like the winter storm in Texas serve as a stark reminder of the crucial role that natural gas plays in supporting the power grid.
As a 2020 Brattle Group report explains, natural gas outperforms other energy sources during emergencies. That’s because it “can perform without advance notice for any length of outage,” and is an efficient, cost-effective resource:
“Under the assumptions in this study, the capital and operating costs of the natural gas microgrid are roughly offset by its market revenue potential. In other words, the natural gas microgrid could nearly break even over its lifetime, in addition to providing highly valuable resilience to a local distribution substation”.
Texas is already acting in response to the storm and the state Legislature is debating several bills that aim to strengthen the energy grid and protect consumers.
Electricity Demand Soared During Texas Winter Storm
While all energy systems faced challenges amid the historic cold temperatures, as Energy In Depth noted, natural gas became the dominant fuel for power generation, jumping from 307,208 megawatthours on February 8 to nearly 900,000 MWh on February 14.
Supported by strong storage supplies, it’s clear that natural gas helped carry the state’s energy mix because the fuel is reliable and dispatchable in times of need, and without it the situation would have been much worse as there simply wasn’t enough capacity from renewables, coal, and nuclear to help meet surging demand.
Surging Electricity Demand In California
The cold snap in Texas isn’t the only recent weather event to show the critical importance of natural gas.
Last summer, California experienced its first rolling blackouts in 20 years from a heatwave and surging electricity demand. The state’s move to retire natural gas-fired power plants further constrained supplies.
Even Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged that a fossil fuel-sized hole exists in the state’s energy mix.
Yet, a month later, Newsom signed an executive order that directed all new cars and passenger trucks in the state by 2035 to be zero-emissions vehicles. Meanwhile more than 40 cities have acted to ban gas hookups in new homes and buildings in favor of an all-electric approach for cooling, heating, and power appliances and the state Energy Commission is exploring similar policies.
The move to electric vehicles could raise electricity demand in the state by 25 percent, and as Pew Charitable Trust has noted, the lack of natural gas to provide fast-ramping, dispatchable power could plague consumers:
“Electricity demand fluctuates throughout the day; demand is higher during daytime hours, peaking in the early evening. If many people buy electric vehicles and mostly try to charge right when they get home from work — as many currently do — the system could get overloaded or force utilities to deliver more electricity than they’re currently capable of producing.”
It’s clear that California already isn’t producing enough electricity for its population – the nation’s largest – and now is enacting policies that will further spike electricity demand, while working to remove natural gas from the energy mix – a key fuel in power generation.
That combination will continue to put immense stress on the state’s energy system and ignores the lessons from the Texas winter storm that natural gas provides dispatchable, baseload power to meet increased demand.
Residents Paying the Price For Constrained Supply in New York and New England
In the Northeast, a constrained supply of natural gas in winter repeatedly causes issues across the region, despite close proximity to the nation’s most prolific natural gas basin. Policymakers have repeatedly blocked the construction of new natural gas pipelines that would carry much-needed energy into the megalopolis centered around New York and Boston.
New York already banned fracking despite sitting atop the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale, and is now denying its citizens access to the fuel from neighboring Pennsylvania, while the Massachusetts Attorney General has admitted she’d rather import natural gas from Russia rather than build new pipelines.
The results of restricting supply have proved predictable and disastrous. People in New York and New England are paying some of the highest natural gas and electricity prices in the country as Northeast residents pay 29 percent more for their natural gas than the national average.
A 2019 report from the Manhattan Institute said:
“Utility rates in New York are already among the highest in the country—and shutting off access to more natural gas is only going to make things worse.”
The push by New York to block pipelines is under the guise of climate action, but that same report notes that cutting off supplies of cleaner-burning natural gas, ironically, “will likely result in increased use of heating fuel oil, which means increased air pollution and carbon-dioxide emissions,” and result in higher costs for consumers and schools.
Meanwhile, New England suffers from “energy delivery infrastructure constraints and outages,” as the Energy Information Administration describes it. The situation has become so bad that grid operator ISO New England has warned:
“During the last few years, inadequate infrastructure to transport natural gas has at times affected the ability of natural-gas-fired plants to get the fuel they need to perform. This fuel-security risk has become a pressing concern in New England, considering the major role natural-gas-fired generation plays in keeping the lights on and setting prices for wholesale electricity.
“The performance of the largest and most flexible sector of generators is weakened by insufficient pipeline and storage capacity.”
In sharp contrast right over the state line from New York, residents in Pennsylvania are benefitting from some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world.
The key question is whether states like California, Massachusetts, and New York will learn from past lessons that blocking natural gas use will only diminish the balance of their grids.
Those states already have a supply problem and the Texas winter storm serves as a stark reminder that extreme weather and other damaging events will lead to massive spike in demand and that natural gas plays a key role in supporting the energy mix.