There is a very interesting article this morning in the New York Times about the natural gas crisis in New England. The story is by our old friend Matt Wald, who appears, once again, to be pushing for new transmission. This time it’s gas transmission.
Down here in WV, we are used to the constant drumbeat of corporate propaganda about the New Age of natural gas plenty. In New England, they are running short of gas:
Electricity prices in New England have been four to eight times higher than normal in the last few weeks, as the region’s extreme reliance on natural gas for power supplies has collided with a surge in demand for heating.
There is a fundamental difference between coal and natural gas. Coal is no longer used as a primary heating fuel, while gas is the most efficient fossil fuel for building heat. Electricity demand faces two peak periods every year, which vary by location. One peak is in the summer, especially in warm climates, when there is a lot of demand for air conditioning. The other peak is in the winter when heating draws power, particularly in colder northern areas.
In cold climates, during winter electricity peaks, direct use of gas for heating also peaks. If there is not enough pipeline infrastructure in a region to handle the massive surge of gas needed to fuel both the electricity peak and the gas heating peak, natural gas supply is sucked dry, causing skyrocketing prices.
James G. Daly, vice president for energy supply at Northeast Utilities, a company that, through its subsidiaries, provides electricity to homes and businesses in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, said: “There is concern we don’t have enough capacity to supply heating and electricity generation.”
Northeast and many other companies are temporarily insulated from the spot market because they sign long-term contracts for electricity supply. But Northeast’s energy charges next year could be 10 percent higher than they are now, Mr. Daly said, because the companies that sell power on a long-term basis will charge more to absorb the risk of short-term spikes in prices.
In his usual style, Mr. Wald responds to this situation by wistfully yearning for the good old days of obsolete coal-fired power plants and heavily subsidized nuke plants that are still storing their dangerous radioactive waste on site, near major population centers. But here is his big solution:
But the biggest problem may be the inadequacy of existing pipelines. On Feb. 7, ISO New England told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it was concerned about “increasing reliance on natural gas-fueled generators at times when there is an increasingly tight availability of pipeline capacity to deliver natural gas from the south and west to New England.”
Yup, that’s right. Matt Wald wants more transmission capacity. Who could have seen that coming? This time he wants it for gas.
He points to the real problem at the end of his article, but he never realizes what the facts are telling him. Here are the hints that he never picks up on:
During the storm last week, with transmission lines being knocked out by snow and high winds, ISO asked some gas-fired generators to start running in the middle of the night…
About 30 percent of the generators in the region burn coal and oil, Dr. Chadalavada said, but they produce less than 1 percent of the energy because they run so seldom. Some can take 24 hours to return to service.
That’s right. The problem isn’t with using natural gas or coal or with not enough pipelines. The problem is that we are dependent on long distance dispatch of both electricity and gas. Both are dependent on fragile infrastructure and unresponsive generation technologies, as well as the big one – fuel uncertainty. While Mr. Wald does a very good job of describing New England’s current problems, he fails to go one step further, as always, to point out what is really going on.
It is ironic in the extreme that New England, off its Atlantic Coast, has the best wind power resources in the US, but, thanks to David Koch, Mitt Romney and the Kennedy family, New England has 0, yes that is ZERO, offshore wind generation capacity, which is (1) close to coastal population centers and (2) requires no fuel.
But Mr. Wald thinks that New England’s big infrastructure problem is that they don’t have enough natural gas pipelines. The problem with this “solution” is that investment in new transmission capacity, whether it is pipelines or power lines, is outrageously expensive, if it is designed to deal only with peak capacity needs. Rate payers pay for massive new capacity, which then sits underused for all but a few days during the year.
Once again, poor old Matt Wald misses the real story here. His whole article is an eloquent argument for decentralized, largely renewable, power generation and resilient microgrids, but he misses this point entirely.