When bad weather has struck, natural gas has been completely reliable
Last year, the United States experienced a series of catastrophic weather events that challenged the durability and resilience of regional power grids. These put to the test the different energy sources we rely on to power American homes and businesses. First, Hurricane Harvey devastated the Gulf Coast in much of Texas and western Louisiana. Then Hurricane Irma swept over much of Florida. Finally, after a summer of tropical destruction, the winter brought the “Bomb Cyclone,” a deep freeze affecting much of the Northeast and New England. Although each event affected the nations’ power grids differently, there was one consistent result: The natural gas system continued to serve regional grids reliably throughout each one. A review of performance in Florida, the Gulf Coast and northeastern states during and after these three weather events was recently published by analytics expert RBN Energy, on behalf of the Natural Gas Council. RBN found that natural gas convincingly and consistently rose to the challenge of each event. In fact, the system performed remarkably. Unfortunately, the Trump administration continues to hunt for evidence to the contrary. This is part of an effort to justify subsidizing uneconomic coal and nuclear power plants. But RBN’s research supports the testimony of regional grid operator PJM, which has repeatedly stated that its power system remains reliable as it increasingly transitions its base of power generation to natural gas. RBN’s report points out that natural gas is safely, efficiently and affordably transported through underground pipelines, which are typically unaffected by flooding, winds or deep snow. It also makes clear that contrary to the administration’s proposal, both coal and nuclear have resilience risks. Coal is trucked or hauled by rail, leaving it vulnerable to weather-related closing of roads and railways. On-site coal piles are vulnerable to flooding and freezing. Nuclear generators often shut down during extreme weather. In fact Florida’s nuclear facilities were pre-emptively shut down before Hurricane Irma arrived, as a necessary precaution against a possible leak of fissile material or a reactor meltdown. In contrast, the research notes that during the Bomb Cyclone, all contracted natural gas supplies were successfully delivered throughout the affected regions at the price and volume agreed to in the contract. And in fact, 98 percent of the natural gas delivered in New England was shielded from price fluctuations caused by the massive surge in demand. In the few places where delivered natural gas prices did rise, increases were largely attributed to insufficient pipeline capacity to supply the volume of natural gas the market demanded. New England’s grid operator, ISO New England, has noted these constraints largely exist due to barriers to needed pipeline projects, including the lack of political will to expand natural gas pipelines in the region during the last decade. Similarly, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma had no effect on natural gas availability. According to RBN’s report, geographically diverse domestic shale gas production and an extensive, interconnected pipeline network have made the United States extremely resilient to hurricanes. In many instances, reliable natural gas supplies helped fuel backup power generation to keep critical energy needs fulfilled until above-ground power lines could be repaired. RBN’s analysis clearly demonstrates that the effort by some in the administration to disparage natural gas in favor of coal and nuclear power is not driven by real-world experience. Instead of attempting to subsidize aging and inefficient technologies at a cost to consumers, the White House should acknowledge the important contribution that natural gas makes to our nation’s power grids, particularly during extreme weather events, and support this abundant, affordable and reliable domestic fuel source. Subsidizing one form of energy clearly ignores free market principles, arbitrarily tilting the scale, creating investment uncertainty and causing consumers to bear the brunt of these decisions through higher electricity prices. The administration should recognize this truth and steer clear of policies that could endanger American citizens the next time a hurricane or freeze comes to our shores. Dave McCurdy, American Gas Association; Mike Sommers, American Petroleum Institute; Barry Russell, Independent Petroleum Association of America; Don Santa, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and Dena Wiggins, Natural Gas Supply Association. Collectively the five organizations make up the Natural Gas Council.