As power grids in the United States continue to add gas-fired power plants, a new report warns that the fossil fuel’s overstated claims of reliability make consumers vulnerable to widespread blackouts.
“In a world with a rapidly changing climate and increasingly frequent gas plant failures, we must reassess the role of this resource in ensuring grid reliability,” writes the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Gas plants are vulnerable to a range of extreme weather events, including heatwaves, cold snaps, and droughts, with the most catastrophic failures occurring in winter.”
In 2021, winter storm Uri caused an estimated US$195 billion in damages when it struck Texas. Freezing temperatures strained an under-prepared grid and caused long, widespread blackouts affecting 4.5 million people. At least 246 people died (later estimates put the total at 700), two-thirds of them due to hypothermia. At the time, politicians were quick to blame the state’s renewable energy sources, but later enquiries revealed that the real problem lay with frozen gas plants. In fact, after this winter’s latest cold snap, the Texas grid’s success is being chalked up to added capacity from renewables investments.
Including Uri, the U.S. has suffered five separate large-scale grid outages in the past 11 years, mostly driven by the failure of gas-fired power during periods of extreme cold, says the UCS. “Each event caused significant, unplanned losses of generation capacity due to freezing equipment, disrupted fuel supplies, and other system failures.”
Canary Media notes that “‘correlated outage’ events—moments when large numbers of power plants using the same fuel fail simultaneously—aren’t fully accounted for in today’s grid reliability regulations and structures.”
“The connection between cold-weather failures at gas wells, compressor stations, and other key links in the nation’s gas pipeline delivery network and the ability of gas-fired power plants to serve the grid when they’re most needed are even less understood and accounted for.”
UCS also warns that gas plants can underperform during heatwaves when cooling power is most needed, and that drought can “hamstring” water-dependent power plants.
Yet gas proponents still cast the fuel as a stalwart energy source for grids, especially in the face of rising demand for electricity. UCS writes that this reputation is unearned, pointing to outages during Uri and other storms like Elliot in 2022, when gas plant failures accounted for 63% of the generating capacity knocked offline.
But grids are not scaling back their reliance on gas. In 2022, gas plants provided 40% of total U.S. electricity generation and accounted for 43% of generating capacity.
“This heavy reliance on gas plants, coupled with an assumption that gas plants are more reliable than they actually are, is a vulnerability for the power grid and for consumers,” UCS states.
Some measures can be taken to offset extreme weather threats by “winterizing” and “weatherizing” gas plants, but there is no guarantee that protection against today’s extreme weather events will prepare facilities for future events in a changing climate.
Better instead to invest in establishing “a diverse portfolio of renewable energy resources, coupled with energy storage and additional transmission capacity,” UCS writes.
Bringing about greater deployment of clean energy alternatives to feed the U.S. grid will require action from policy-makers, who must pursue supply-side solutions to improve grid reliability as well as demand-side solutions that encourage efficiency and flexible demand to reduce peak usage.
“Pursuing clean energy solutions instead of fossil fuels reduces not only global warming emissions but also toxic air pollutants that harm public health, particularly in communities of colour where gas plants are disproportionately located,” UCS writes.
“Further, demand-side solutions can reduce the need for new infrastructure and diminish the land use impacts that come with large-scale projects.”