The agency charged with ensuring the reliability of the United States’ electrical grids has warned that the growing role of natural gas in its power supply will create mounting vulnerabilities as coal and nuclear plants are shut down.
In a new report, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) finds that gas-fueled generation is at risk of regional blackouts when too many power plants rely on infrastructure chokepoints.
“In light of the power sector’s rising reliance on natural gas, the loss of gas facilities must be added to the list of potential extreme contingencies used to measure system reliability impacts,” said NERC’s director of reliability assessment and system analysis, John Moura.
As E&E News [subscription required] describes the study, NERC looked at “clusters” where natural gas-fired power plants within a 200-mile radius produced at least 2,000 megawatts of electricity but leaned “heavily on just one piece of natural gas infrastructure, such as a major pipeline, a liquefied natural gas terminal, or a key compressor station.”
“Of the 24 most sensitive sites identified,” E&E writes, “NERC simulations found that 18 were at risk of ‘extreme generator outages’ due to natural gas disruptions.”
The finding is sure to enflame an ongoing debate over whether coal and nuclear generators should receive a US$11-billion subsidy from the public purse, as Energy Secretary Rick Perry has demanded. That request is before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which also boasts a majority of Trump appointees.
The proposed subsidy has been broadly panned by economists and other industry sectors. Perry has justified it by arguing that those technologies stockpile fuel onsite, and are not vulnerable to production variability when the sun goes down, the wind drops, or—as the NERC study now observes—when a gas pipeline suffers a shutdown. (They are, however, subject to scheduled and unscheduled shutdowns for other reasons.)
The authors of the latest study point out another solution, albeit one perhaps no likelier to find support among climate hawks: “the expedited approval of new gas and transmission projects to help diversify the system and make it more resilient to gas supply disruptions.”
Media attention to the report was distracted, E&E reported, when police arrested NERC CEO Gerry Cauley on a charge of domestic violence brought by his estranged wife. Cauley, who has led the organization for seven years, was placed on indefinite leave.