Natural Gas Infrastructure Is Much More Concerning Than a Solar Eclipse

Recently, many articles in a variety of publications speculated on how the August 21, 2017, solar eclipse would impact the electric grid. Most utility people expected no serious outages or disruptions, and none happened.

The stories were directionally right to bring up localized reliability issues because of the ever-increasing percentage of solar power being fed into the system. It is good that people realize that intermittent renewables do indeed have operational issues when the sun doesn’t shine. But each time I read a story, I thought to myself: “They are focusing on a two-minute lapse in sunlight when they should be focusing on the readiness of the natural gas infrastructure and localized reliability issues not affected by the eclipse.”

The Nationwide Trend Toward Natural Gas

There are benefits of moving from coal-fired to natural gas-fired generation, such as cost savings resulting from the current low price of natural gas and better ramping capabilities offered by new combined cycle gas plants. It is also dramatically easier to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations with natural gas.

However, the overall picture of moving from coal to gas gets a bit tricky when looking at the current state of natural gas infrastructure and its readiness for the electric sector in certain locations. There are some legitimate concerns about the readiness of natural gas infrastructure, including pipelines, compressor stations, and gas processing facilities, in states where the infrastructure serving the power sector is not yet fully permitted or redundantly constructed.

I wish all states with gas-fired electric generation had infrastructure like Texas (my home state). It has tremendous natural gas resources as well as surplus pipeline capacity, ample gas storage, and the ability to re-route gas during maintenance or other events. Many other states lack maturity and adequacy in their natural gas delivery and storage infrastructure.

Regulation and Litigation Challenges

The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has promulgated new regulations—inspired by the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage leak in southern California. It isn’t clear yet when the natural gas underground storage system will be fully updated under the new interim final public safety rule. It also isn’t clear how many of the nation’s 300 natural gas storage locations must undergo repairs that might take a storage location offline or force temporary operation at reduced capacity. Many electric utility folks may not even know where the natural gas storage wells and facilities that serve their power plant are located, but they should.

Don’t misread my observation about gas storage. I am not suggesting that there will be other Aliso Canyon-type leaks. I am merely offering that the new safety regulations take time to complete at so many locations.

The Obama administration issued a methane leak detection and repair regulation on new pipelines and compressor stations built after September 18, 2015. While those methane leaks might sometimes take minutes or hours to repair, there are other methane leak repairs that might take days or weeks.

Repairs on pipelines and compressor stations cannot always be planned well in advance. Often, the repairs involve a “blowdown” or evacuation of the methane gas at a nearby compressor station for safety reasons. That could cause power plants served by only one gas provider to have a disruption in service, and not just for a couple of hours.

And recently, several court decisions have gone against the gas industry, including one in New York denying a 7.8-mile-long lateral pipeline (basically an extension to an existing pipeline) for a power plant that is already under construction. The court said its denial was based on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission inadequately assessing the long-term or downstream National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) impacts from greenhouse gases. I worry that NEPA may become a way for pipeline opponents to slow or even stop dozens of other pipelines and perhaps compressor station projects.

Understanding the Situation

Gas infrastructure readiness is rarely discussed. The power sector’s operations managers and system planners need to know far more about the infrastructure that serves electric utilities. They need to know more about compressor stations and re-routing capabilities. They need to ask smart questions about the status of natural gas storage wells or facilities before mothballing or decommissioning coal plants.

The infrastructure readiness issues and localized reliability concerns are not insurmountable but they do require the electric sector’s engagement and planning. Some in the power sector may want to explore owning small-scale liquefied natural gas storage to maintain three to six days of supply on hand, much like having mutual aid agreements.

This is not a cause for alarm, nor is it an anti-natural gas message. It is simply an observation that we are in a time of change and electric utilities need to be prepared. ■

Theresa Pugh is a consultant to more than 200 electric utility clients across 18 states and has 14 years of experience in the sector. She also does consulting in the oil and gas industry (www.theresapughconsulting.com).