New ideas are great, but there is no replacement for accumulated experience to assess the landscape ahead and see potential trouble on the horizon. This is one of my most important responsibilities for our company. I am no mountain climber, but I am reminded of mountaineering documentaries about summiting Everest and getting past the treacherous Hillary Step. Just last week, I met with a team of engineers cautioning them about crucial steps in the progression of a project that would make or break the project. It involved a combination of technical factors and human factors.
Too bad there is no empowered overseer of grid reliability. Instead, we have politicians making law, blocking things, and setting renewable energy and carbon goals with puny regard for the engineering required to keep the lights on. Responding to these blind ambitions, we have a struggling hodgepodge of fragmented entities trying to manage the transition. At the end of the line, we have the unfortunate bystanders – the utilities. When the ____ (insert your substance of choice here) hits the fan, the utilities are going to bear the brunt of the storm.
The ____ Hits the Fan
Like it or not, no source of power is more reliable than a mountain of coal sitting next to a power plant. It isn’t going to explode, start on fire, or suddenly become unavailable. There is no competition for it. Conversely, natural gas is far more like electricity when it comes to bottlenecks and limited storage. The storage we have was enough for the days when natural gas was primarily a heating fuel and a source for industrial processes. It was never designed to handle a massive and fast transition to major power generation.
California’s ____ Storm Rising
You may have read or heard about the massive natural gas leak from the Aliso Canyon storage facility in Southern California. To quote the linked Environmental Defense Fund post, “Overdependence on natural gas – and on one provider of that gas – means we don’t have the flexibility we need to cope if things go wrong. And now that they have gone wrong, because of SoCalGas’ mismanagement of the Aliso Canyon storage facility [my emphasis].”
Heeyaah! What did I say about the utilities taking the brunt of the ____ storm?
Aside from the environmental wreckage of the natural gas leak (per my calculations, 190,000 tons of methane released), it poses a substantial risk to power reliability for the nation’s most populous regions this summer. There is potential for 14 days of blackouts in the region as a result.
Just a few weeks ago, I noted outages have increased 600% in recent years, and that current annual outages cost $150 billion compared to total annual electric sales of just $200 billion. This is mind-blowing, folks.
New England on Deck
In another Utility Dive article earlier this year, New England is headed for a pinch as well. Specifically, 4,000 MW (equal to eight large plants) of natural gas plants will be shutting down in the next couple years. An additional 680 MW nuclear plant may shut down next year. Needed gas pipelines won’t come online before 2018.
To demonstrate how fragmented policymakers can muck things up for an entire region, witness New York. In late 2014, Governor Cuomo banned hydraulic fracturing for bounteous natural gas in his state, to the chagrin of farmers, energy companies, and rate payers. Safety was the reported concern. Even the EPA in the following year found no credible risks from hydraulic fracturing. This is the same EPA that assumed pregnant women might feast on six pounds of lake fish per week as a basis for determining mercury emission limits from power plants.
At the time of the NY fracking ban, I thought, “if I’m a New Yorker, we don’t have access to our own resources, we pay higher prices, and neighboring states will pipe their fracked natural gas right under our feet to the New England states.” What a winner!
Nope. Just a few days back, New York blocked construction of a 120 mile pipeline that would transport natural gas from Pennsylvania to New York City, Boston, and other parts of New England. The reason? After building thousands of miles of pipelines, been to the moon and back several times, built huge damns, AT&T Stadium, and a 50 km tunnel from the UK to France, suddenly we’re too dumbfounded and flummoxed to build a pipeline. This is ideology run amuck.
The Physics Go On
Physics and engineering are stubborn things. It reminds me of the keynote delivered at AESP’s spring conference last year by Air Force Colonel and Astronaut, Mike Mullane. The subject: normalized deviance, which means allowing political pressure to override sound science and following rules (deviance). Rolling the deviance dice and living to tell about it means it becomes ok – normalized…until the ____ hits the fan. It may not be an explosion, but it could be financially catastrophic.
Most of the nation is stampeding into natural gas power generation it seems, with insufficient regard for the most valuable aspect of electricity: reliability.