A Reliability Lesson From ‘Unmet’ U.S. Energy Demand

As the largest economy in the world and home to some of the most innovative thinkers on earth, the United States should not have to worry about keeping the lights on. Yet the past few years have proven that political decisions to transition away from natural gas can force millions of Americans to live with a less than reliable power grid.

Pairing flexible, clean-burning and abundant natural gas with renewables means we don’t have to choose between a low-carbon power grid and a reliable one. Unfortunately, across the country, decisions to block natural gas infrastructure and shut down dispatchable power supplies are hurting homeowners and businesses alike, while also hindering our ability to transition to a lower-carbon economy.

In recent weeks, there has been a national conversation over rolling power outages in California. The blame game is in full swing, but what Californians are experiencing is by no means limited to the Golden State. Major natural gas pipeline projects in the East have been halted as a result of activist and legal pressure. The cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, for example, means that energy demand in Virginia and North Carolina will now go “unmet,” which means higher prices and lower reliability. The gas that would have flowed through the ACP would have been used to displace coal-fired power, which means the pipeline’s cancellation will also lead to higher emissions.

In New York, ongoing hostility to natural gas infrastructure led one local utility to temporarily suspend new gas hookups for households. Choked off from domestic natural gas supplies, New England was forced to import liquefied natural gas from Russia to keep the heat and the lights on in winter. Just a few years ago, New England residents were paying the highest prices for natural gas in the world, a cruel irony since the region is separated by only a few hundred miles from the Marcellus Shale, one of the world’s largest natural gas fields. New England’s independent system operator has observed that a lack of access to natural gas – driven by inadequate pipeline capacity – “can pose a serious risk to the reliable supply of electricity.”

In New Mexico, electric utility PNM has stated that natural gas will be a key part of the state’s aggressive carbon reduction plan, not only to keep energy affordable but also to ensure reliability. Yet there is a push in New Mexico to ignore the reliability and affordability of natural gas and move forward with an all-renewables approach instead.

No one questions the importance of renewable energy, especially in combating climate change. We also know that state mandates and technological progress will spur additional buildouts of wind and solar in the decades ahead. But if we don’t pair those technologies with appropriate investments in natural gas infrastructure, we will risk an unprecedented energy reliability challenge. We may look back at this point in time and wonder why we chose to ignore the warning signs all around us instead of embracing the full abundance of America’s energy resources, including both renewables and natural gas.

Experts have consistently observed that natural gas and renewables are complementary. Ernest Moniz, who served as energy secretary under President Barack Obama, observed that “as more and more variable resources are brought into the electricity system, the more you are going to need natural gas for the balancing of that system.” A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which looked at power systems all around the world, concluded that renewables and natural gas “should be jointly installed to meet the goals of cutting emissions and ensuring a stable supply.”

A recent report from the U.S. Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis acknowledged that “reducing emissions across all sectors of our economy will require a diversity of technologies,” and that policies should focus on “the most cost-effective emissions reduction solutions, rather than favoring some technologies over others.”

We must recognize that the most important element of a functioning power grid is reliability. When we flip the switch, we expect the lights to come on. We depend on air conditioning to protect us from heat waves, just as we rely on home heating to protect us during the colder months. The amount of natural gas consumed by U.S. power plants recently hit an all-time high, confirming just how critical this low-cost fuel is to our economy.

It is no longer just a warning or theory that blocking pipelines and closing natural gas plants will make our grid less reliable and reduce our ability to solve key environmental challenges. It’s already happening. The question is whether we will learn from those mistakes and pursue a more sustainable path forward.

Alex Oehler is the interim president and chief executive officer of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.

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