The U.S. has a natural gas problem. While regulatory pressure continues to place an ever-greater burden on the gas fleet and gas infrastructure to provide dispatchable power when it’s needed most, the gas system is again and again showing it’s simply not up to the challenge.
The latest alarming example comes from the after-action report on what went wrong during winter storm Elliot last December that forced rolling blackouts in several states and pushed several regional grids into emergency conditions.
A stunning 90.5 GW, or 13% of the generating capacity in the Eastern Interconnection — the grid system covering two-thirds of the U.S. — failed to run or operated at reduced capacity during the storm, according to analysis from both the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). For comparison, the entire generating capacity of the United Kingdom is roughly 76 GW.
Gas-fired capacity accounted for 63% of the outages. On the PJM grid, the nation’s largest regional grid serving 65 million Americans, gas capacity accounted for 70% — or 32 gigawatts – of outages.
Gas supply – literally getting gas to power plants – was a critical problem across the country as equipment froze from wellheads to generators. And it wasn’t just the power sector short of supply. Consolidated Edison, a gas utility that serves much of New York city, was on the verge of a system collapse due to low pipeline pressure. If the system had collapsed, it would have taken months to restore service—that’s months of no heat, no cooking fuel or hot water for more than one million families.
This was the fifth time in the past 11 years, and the third time in the past five, that there has been a significant wintertime outage. While no generating source has come through these storms unscathed, the gas system is accumulating quite the negative track record.
Notably, it was the failure of the gas delivery system in Texas that precipitated the near collapse of the state’s grid during winter storm Uri in February of 2021 that claimed the lives of 246 people.
Reliability Regulators Demand Action
Willie Phillips, FERC’s Chairman, has once again called for Congress to direct an agency to oversee reliability for the natural gas system.
As E&E Newsdescribed, “essentially, there are no mandatory federal reliability standards for the entire natural gas system, from wellheads to pipelines to gas distribution lines. That’s different from the electric grid and power plants, which are largely subject to such standards, even though both systems are increasingly interdependent.”
It’s an astonishing vulnerability – a ticking time bomb – in the reliability of our energy systems that policymakers must address but haven’t. And while we wait for action, regulatory pressure is pushing more and more of the nation’s reliability burden onto a gas system incapable of shouldering it.
As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agenda and state regulatory pressure drive more and more essential coal capacity offline, the nation’s remaining dispatchable fuel diversity – so critically important to managing grid crises – is disappearing. The now well-documented gas system failures we’ve seen over the past decade were a shot across the bow that the gas system needs to be fortified and that dispatchable fuel diversity cannot be taken for granted.
Hoping for the holistic fixes needed to avert catastrophe may well be a fool’s errand. Worse than inaction or obstruction, there are too many policymakers who are convinced renewables, energy storage and greatly expanded electricity transmission are a panacea to this crisis. Perhaps some day they can be but certainly not any time soon. It’s a reliability catastrophe that regulators know is coming – are warning against in the strongest terms – but don’t have the tools or authority to fix. And EPA and the Biden administration are holding course in driving us right over the cliff.
Time is running out to recognize the importance of dispatchable fuel diversity and the fuel security provided by the coal fleet. Instead of a regulatory agenda designed to accelerate coal plant closures, we desperately need a program to ensure existing coal capacity remains a reliability backstop for as long as it takes to build, demonstrate and fully understand what it will take to reliably deliver our energy future.
- On October 4, 2023