With parts of the country in the grips of the most significant cold snap since 2014, now is a good time to examine how people are coping with deep-freeze conditions, as well as certain realities in the power supply space.
First, looking at the country as a whole, the power grid has handled the stresses of the extreme cold temperatures well. Because of the lessons learned from the extreme cold spell in early 2014 and the rapid response of grid operators to address challenges exposed then, more capacity is online and available to meet the demands of customers. This week in PJM, the regional transmission organization serving parts of the Middle Atlantic and upper Midwest, the region had one of its 10 highest winter peak demands.
And PJM reported it still had nearly 25,000 megawatts (MW) of generation capacity in reserve.
Second, and in sharp contrast to PJM’s prices, in ISO-New England we’re seeing what happens to prices when there is insufficient infrastructure to bring much-needed natural gas to customers. Natural gas prices in New England, just 100 miles from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus natural gas play, were as much as 10 times the cost of natural gas in PJM.
Opponents of natural gas pipelines and natural gas in general, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have been fighting tooth and nail to oppose more pipeline capacity into New England. With the temperatures we’re seeing, this opposition puts lives in danger and is incredibly misguided. The issue isn’t just price, it is the significant risk to families and businesses when they can’t secure energy to heat and power their homes and businesses. Whatever your position on natural gas, no one – regardless of socioeconomic status – should be at risk of freezing when affordable, clean fuel is available.
Third, all fuel types have their challenges in times of extreme weather. Entergy’s Pilgrim nuclear power station in Massachusetts had to shut down due to transmission line issues, taking 680 MW of generation off the system and making irrelevant the claimed advantages of having fuel onsite.
Meanwhile, natural gas-fired generation has been reduced and replaced by fuel oil in New England for two key reasons: (1) demand for residential heating in times of extreme cold reduces available volumes of natural gas to generate electricity, and (2) insufficient natural gas infrastructure – including constrained pipeline capacity, underutilized liquefied natural gas import capability and the lack of natural gas storage – to provide sufficient volumes of natural gas to meet both the heating and power generation demand.
Many of the dual fuel generators in ISO-NE are burning fuel oil to generate power because they cannot secure sufficient supplies of natural gas. The extended fuel oil burn times can then create issues under ISO-NE emissions limitations, adding further stress to grid operations.
Pressure by environmental extremists, among other factors, has resulted in the closure of nearly all coal-fired plants in New England, eliminating coal as an option for generating power. This makes the need for sufficient natural gas infrastructure and supply even more critical in times of stress.
Those who favor a 100 percent renewables future and are working to block needed pipeline infrastructure cannot solely dictate our nation’s path forward. Commonsense tells us that we are not yet anywhere near a 100 percent renewables generation scenario, and that cold weather is a fact of life in certain parts of the country.
Let’s be clear: An enhanced natural gas infrastructure system to deliver safe, clean and reliable natural gas would keep people safe from dangerously cold weather, via home heating and power generation, and be a necessary complement to renewables-based generation portfolios. As we’ve discussed before, natural gas is essential to the growth of renewables in power generation.
Counting on future technological advancements and ambitious aspirational goals is one thing, but it doesn’t help those in need of heat and electricity today. Ensuring the health and safety of people exposed to harsh, life-threatening weather conditions should always come first. People on all sides of this energy issue should acknowledge today’s realities to find a workable path forward that’s not an either/or choice – and that doesn’t put lives in danger.
No American should be put in jeopardy because of a lack of heat and electricity. The answer lies right beneath our feet.
Todd Snitchler is API’s group director for Market Development. He is a former chairman of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, and he chaired the Ohio Power Siting Board. This column originally appeared on API’s Energy Tomorrow blog on Jan. 5, 2018.