Posted February 8, 2018
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity recently posted this blog attacking natural gas as a fuel for electricity generation during winter cold snaps. It’s a familiar refrain, which we’ve refuted a number of times (including here, here and here). The fact is our nation’s electric grid is as reliable as ever, which recent data indicates. False narratives about unfounded reliability concerns – as a tool for advocating one fuel type over another – hurt efforts to improve the grid’s reliability and resilience.
As for the performance of natural gas as a generating fuel during extreme cold, let’s review the record.
Temperatures in some regions dipped 20 to 40 degrees below zero during the winter of 2014. The fact is natural gas systems performed reliably and well during the “Polar Vortex,” and, contrary to some claims, there were no widespread natural gas system outages. It’s simply untrue that natural gas generation was unavailable because systems couldn’t get natural gas supplies.
While some natural gas-fired generators experienced some curtailment or interruption of their fuel supplies, these generators were on transport contracts that permitted interruption. Natural gas-fired generation with “firm” delivery contracts saw no supply interruptions. At a conference last fall, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member Robert Powelson rejected attempts to blame outages during the 2014 cold snap on the availability of natural gas:
“[L]et me start by debunking some myths. It wasn’t because of failed combined cycle gas plants. There’s a dirty little secret running around that the gas guys didn’t perform during the Jan. 6-7 timeline. I’m here to tell you, unequivocally, that is not the case.”
A report by PJM, the regional transmission organization (RTO) that plays a major part in operating eastern parts of the electric grid, found that “all conventional forms of generation, including coal and nuclear plants, were challenged by extreme weather conditions,” and that 42 percent of the forced outages were the result of equipment issues associated with all types of generating units.
Lessons Turned Into Action
At that time, coordination was lacking between electric markets and natural gas markets – as well coordination between enhanced electric market design and operations. In the aftermath of the Polar Vortex, FERC and the RTOs/independent service operators (ISOs) acted to improve market rules and operations to reduce the likelihood of similar supply disruptions going forward:
Because of reforms, the PJM system performed remarkably well in 2015 under similar conditions to the 2014 Polar Vortex. No single day came close to approaching the level of concern for the electrical grid that was seen the year before.
A number of cities across PJM hit their daily low-temperature records during February. On Jan. 7, 2014, PJM set a winter peak record of 142,863 megawatts (MW) and the forced outage rate that day was 22 percent of total capacity. On Feb. 20, 2015, a new winter peak record was set in PJM at 143,086 MW, and the forced outage rate that day was only 13.4 percent.
In the waning days of 2017 and in early 2018, the nation again experienced severe winter weather, and it was mostly met with yawns from grid operators. PJM reported that Jan. 3 and 5 were top 10 peak winter demand days, yet unplanned outages on the worst day were only 11.5 percent, and these were due mainly to issues with equipment freezing and included all generation resource types:
PJM CEO Andy Ott, before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 23:
[T]here are many factors that drove improved performance, including enhancements PJM and its member companies have put in place in the years since the Polar Vortex, such as deployment of more efficient generation resources, increased investment in existing resources, improved performance incentives, enhanced winterization measures and increased gas-electric coordination.
In the middle part of the nation, Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s Jan. 2 winter peak load was also in the top 10 and only 4.2 percent lower than the record set during the Polar Vortex, while generator outage levels were similar to any other January in the region.
While the New England electric grid remained stable, many natural gas generators switched to burning oil. On several days, ISO-New England’s fuel mix was more than 30 percent oil-fired generation. ISO-NE CEO Gordon Van Welie to the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee:
In late December and early January we experienced the impacts of the current fuel supply constraints. Bitter cold temperatures drove an increase in demand for natural gas. However, we’ve known for several years that when it gets cold New England does not have sufficient natural gas supply infrastructure to meet demand for both home heating and power generation. Constrained pipelines resulted in substantially higher natural gas prices which led to much older and less efficient oil- and coal-fired power plants running “in merit.”
Affordable, abundant natural gas is critical to the reliability of our nation’s electric power system. It provides the flexibility needed to meet the ever-changing demands put on our power system and to incorporate increased amounts of renewable sources of power generation. As the resilience discussion continues, we look forward actively participating in the conversation to ensure that consumers across the country can keep receiving the benefits of clean, reliable, affordable, natural gas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Todd Snitchler is API’s group director for Market Development. Todd is a former chairman of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, and he also chaired the Ohio Power Siting Board. While a commissioner, Snitchler served as the co-vice chair of the Committee on Gas of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, where he also served on the board. He was twice elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, representing the 50th House District. Prior to joining API, Todd led government affairs work on energy and utilities issues for Vorys Advisors in Ohio.