(Departure from average temperatures worldwide. Blue = colder than average, Red = warmer than average. Source: University of Maine Climate Change Institute’s Climate Re-Analyzer, screenshot 1/6/18.)
Baby, it’s cold outside.
This current weather pattern over the eastern half of the US is the pipeline-doomsday scenario pro-pipeline professionals and lobbyists have been warning us about. And yet, everyone still has heat and the lights are still on.
Are wholesale “natural” gas prices high right now? Yes.
(Check ISO-NE’s site for real-time data.) But that’s because competing needs for heat and electric generation in a cold snap and the faulty market pricing strategy. This pinch will not be relieved by more pipeline capacity, but just serve to make us more reliant on the fuel source that is putting us in this position.
Conservation Law Foundation recently eloquently summed up the nature of these price spikes:
“… it is critical to acknowledge the historically short duration of winter price spikes. When they occur, they are limited to a handful of hours during the mornings and evenings of only our coldest days, when there is a coincidence of high gas use for heating and for generating electricity. As a result, these costly “needle peak” demands for electricity generally occur only 10 to 40 days out of the year, or in the range of 5 percent of the total hours the system operates in a year. The prospect of spending billions of dollars on pipelines that will sit idle 95 percent of the time and become obsolete in the next 10 to 15 years as our grid becomes increasingly clean defies all economic sense, environmental sense, and common sense. “
Are the chief supply lines coming in from the Marcellus region (Kinder Morgan’s Tennessee Gas Pipline, and Enbridge’s Algonquin) near capacity during these cold snaps? Yes.
But thanks to the drop in electric demand because of energy efficiency, the system is working, even in this recent, uncharacteristically severe cold snap. The way forward is to double down energy efficiency and sharply increase renewables, not hamstring the region with a decades-long commitment to new fossil fuel infrastructure and an even greater dependency on “natural” gas and it’s price volatility.
ISO-NE’s Power System Updates show that despite the recent spate of cold, New England’s bulk power system is continuing to operate reliably. Even with Pilgrim nuclear plant tripping offline and Winter Storm Grayson delaying fuel deliveries, the system had continued to function and provide power reliably without the need for increased pipeline capacity.
“New England’s bulk power system continues to operate reliably. Currently, there are sufficient generating resources available to meet consumer demand and maintain power system reliability this weekend, barring an unexpected outage of any large system resource. While the ISO is continually assessing the reliability of the system, we will be challenged to deal with major contingencies under these cold weather conditions. In addition, the ISO doesn’t expect generator emission limitations to impede weekend grid operations.”
Use of oil for electric generation has gone up during this time. (Check ISO-NE’s site for real-time data on the mix of fuels providing electricity at any given time.) This is because the cost of natural gas is driven up by the market structure that allows long-term contracts for pipeline capacity for heating, leaving electric generation to purchase at market rate. For plants that can choose which fuel to use, or for electric generation operations that have both kinds of power plants available, oil becomes the cheaper choice.
As oil plants go the way of coal plants in Massachusetts and eventually retire from operation, this wholesale gas pricing dynamic that pits home heating against electric generation during cold weather remains in place. Adding more pipeline capacity to the region would only make us even more dependent on this one source of fuel that’s prone to market price-swings.
Our efforts as a region need to move forward into diversifying our energy supply with sharp increases in appropriately sited solar, wind, grid-scale peak demand storage and further increases in energy efficiency. The functioning of our existing energy systems in recent extreme weather has shown that the call for more pipeline capacity in the face of polar vortex scenarios is a paper tiger.