Once Again, the Problems with Fossil Power – Transmission, Centralized Generation, Fuel Risk

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.

8 thoughts on “Once Again, the Problems with Fossil Power – Transmission, Centralized Generation, Fuel Risk

  1. A month ago I read a report from New England ISO. The governors wanted a study about the potential of wind energy in New England. As a bonus, Appendix E showed it was far cheaper to build power lines to the midwest and truck energy east instead of producing the energy locally. I guess wind is cheaper in Illinois. …yeah right.

    I already have 2 Kinder Morgan pipelines running through my pasture with a third across the fence going east and originating in Texas. I have no more room in one spot of the pasture on the corridor. Pipelines are going to have start piling up on themselves.

    The Prairie Center field has a Northern Borders pipeline from the Dakotas heading east.

    I heard the haughty John Kerry talk about the need for more transmission to the northeast. I guess my question is why does New York and the Northeast treat the Midwest like colonies. Why is it more responsibility to fix their problem because they don’t want coal nuclear wind generation in their own states?

    Illinois has about 6 nuke plants sending power east. Wind energy goes east.

    When is the northeast going to fix their own problem with local generation in their back yard? The price of energy is high enough out there to make it profitable.

    I don’t understand this refusal for local generation in the Northeast. ….I also have difficulty understanding Matt Wald. He tends to be cluelessly argumentative.

    Then again we have a President who kept saying “We can’t drill our way out of this.” That was five years ago. Sarah Palin was right. “Drill baby. Drill.” Was really our slogan….except in New England.

    • Scott,

      I appreciate you commenting on this post, but please try to clean up your text from your phone keypad. I had to do extensive editing to make this comment comprehensible. I want to post your comments, but I don’t have time to do this kind of editiing.

      Now, for the substance of your comments. States like VT, NJ and MA have made great strides in building decentralized power in their states, along with aggressive efficiency improvements. But as you point out, they still have a long way to go toward becoming self-reliant. Offshore wind is the only renewable source of power that can produce the significant capacity they need. And NE ISO, along with PJM, have stalled this investment for years now.

      WV is a major transit point for almost all of the major interstate pipelines feeding the Northeast. There are several 36″ and 40″ pipelines within a few miles of my farm. Natural gas is an important transitional fuel away from coal and nuclear power, but not if there is no plan to transition to renewable power in the first place.

      The situation in ISO New England is a perfect example of the screwy, unplanned systems we have developed in the US. I mean, it wasn’t too hard to foresee this. It’s just math. Calculate peak loads for electricity and heating, compare it with capacity and deliverable gas and plot the demand and supply curves. It’s just simple multiplication and addition. Didn’t happen though.

      Or maybe it did. Who makes money when there are supply bottlenecks and demand peaks? The electricity and gas trading departments of the big investment banks. Didn’t the Enron California power hijacking teach us anything? Maybe the NE train wreck happened by design, because a few traders wanted to make a killing at the expense of NE rate payers?

      Right, Matt Wald didn’t mention that either.

  2. Great article Bill, funny how Scott thinks about the situation in the midwest as WV’s think about supplying energy to the middle eastern seaboard, though that is on the decline with renewables coming on line in NJ, Md., Pa. et al

  3. I’m somewhat confused by the title of your article. The problem appears to be primarily what the NY Times author pointed out – too much reliance on one single source of fuel. If the region had a more diversified energy mix, the electricity rates might not be so unaffordable and high.

    The problem isn’t relying on fossil fuels, like the title suggests, but rather too much concentration of risk. The article would be true if NE relied only on wind power, or only on coal, or only on nuclear. Seems like a misplaced grudge against fossil fuels.

    • SOR,

      No grudge against fossil fuels here, misplaced or otherwise. I understand what you say about diversity. Absolutely true. As the title says, though, centralized fossil fuel generation has three weaknesses: centralized generation, the need for expensive transmission infrastructure and fuel price risk. The principal advantages of natural gas are that you can build decentralized generation close to load, because there is no sulfur or mercury pollution or particulates, but you still have uncertainty of fuel prices and supply. Rooftop solar has none of these problems. Offshore wind requires some new transmission infrastructure, but it is close to load and has no fuel supply/cost risk. When you add up the advantages and disadvantages, decentralized renewable power beats any kind of fossil fuels for electrical production.

      If you read my posts from ten days ago here and here, you will see that I strongly support natural gas as a fuel for direct heating of buildings as well.

      We need to look at fossil fuels with an objective eye and a focus on facts, real strengths and real weaknesses, and not fall into the myopia that seems to plague Mr. Wald.

    • Bill may not have a misplaced hostility to fossil fuels, but I do. Why? Because all of them are highly destructive in the extraction process, highly destructive in the transmission and burning processes, and then there’s climate change. Scientists are saying we’re running out of time to ratchet down greenhouse gases if we want to avoid, not destructive climate change that will increase droughts, floods, heat waves, and insect problems, but catastrophic change that will render much of the Earth uninhabitable, that will drive a hefty percentage of today’s species to extinction, even in the worst case scenario, eliminating ALL LIFE ON EARTH. We should have responded to this problem twenty years ago–now, the only safe transition is an abrupt change in our economy, a plummeting of emissions. Is it really “misplaced” to think delivering a livable planet to our children and grandchildren is more important than maintaining our habits without change, or profits for corporations. We CANNOT deal with climate change (without even addressing the other massive environmental harms resulting from fossil fuels) without a policy change. We can’t keep drilling and mining and burning, offering occasional lip service to environmental defense while okaying every destructive project anyone proposes and expect a solution to magically appear. And choosing to “not believe in” climate change is ridiculous–it won’t stop a single molecule of carbon dioxide or methane from rising into the upper atmosphere, no matter how fervently you unbelieve.

  4. You advice about cell tablets is well taken. I struggling to learn even a 10 inch screen and big fat buttons and will refrain from making verbose commentary on a touch screen. (I hate touchscreen keyboards) Facebook and Twitter were made for touchscreens. Thanks.

    Perhaps you’re correct and this situation is partially created by design. The same is true for corn, oil or energy. Traders do not make money unless markets fluctuate. Stagnate markets are despised by traders.

    John makes a point as each of us thinks about how New England’s refusal to address their energy situation affects us individually. Maybe it’s John Kerry’s tone as he lectured and testified to become the next Secretary of State, but New England’s refusal to deal with it’s apparent lack of energy generation has been rolling around in my head.

    Why doesn’t New England look to the resources it has for new energy generation rather than look for the resources it doesn’t have?

    Why does New England look to limit resources for energy generation rather than focus on least cost generation?

    Wald’s article seems to be similar to Kerry’s statements. New England wants more energy sent to them from others. No reference is made to the resources New England has available locally. With so many powerlines and pipelines heading to the northeast, it shouldn’t be surprising there is an inherent skepticism that additional energy transmission whether by powerline or pipeline to New England means transmission from the Midwest through West Virginia to New England.

    Taking an Illinois perspective, it appears the liberal northeast takes a negative view to most all power generation but they’re perfectly content to transport that energy across the nation to them. Look at the Kerry video. That’s what he calls the world “energy race”. It’s a pissing contest to see who can create more powerlines and pipelines, the US, China, or India. Seems rather silly.

    Take another look at the video and listen carefully to the question by the Wyoming Senator Barrasso. He wants increased transmission from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (coal country) and wants Kerry to say yes America needs to relax emission standards to compete globally. Kerry tactically replies he also wants increased energy transmission but for “clean” energy.

    …and those in the middle between Wyoming and Massachusetts are just pawns to these men.

    • Scott,

      It’s not just about fairness. The laws of physics show clearly that the closer you put generation to load, the more resilient and reliable your electricity will be.

      We are entering a major period of transition in the US. Our highly centralized, highly transmissionized system was built on rapidly increasing demand conditions that existed from the 1880s to the 1960s. Since then, demand growth has flattened, until it actually became essentially flat in 2006.

      The coal/nuke based system of big generators distant from population centers and an international grid (Canada is part of both the Eastern and Western Interconections) is simply no longer viable economically. The speculators have set up deregulation and ISO trading systems so that they can benefit from the discontinuities and price chaos that will only increase in the coming years.

      The only way forward, both in terms of physics and economics, is by decentralizing our power production and minimizing demand. The problem right now is that FERC and the ISOs it has created are trying to maintain the collapsing system that governs the existing obsolete infrastructure. The microgrids in NYC, particularly at Co-op City, have demonstrated that decentralized power is extremely resilient. New technology is now available to homeowners and communities to rebuild our electrical system from the ground up.

      Matt Wald and John Kerry cling to the old way of thinking. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. There are lots of people like them making bad decisions. It is up to us to make the changes our country needs to make.

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