Not often do distinguished Editorial Boards like the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) use terms like “apocalypse” and “zombie” especially when writing about energy. Such was the case, however, in a December 1, 2023, opinion piece which looked at how the city came close to near catastrophic natural gas supply disruptions during last year’s Winter Storm Elliott.
According to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the 2022 storm was the fifth time in 11 years that cold weather caused power plants to fail. In its November Winter Storm Elliott report, NERC found that of the 1,702 generating units that experienced outages, derates or failures to start, 47 percent were natural gas-fired units that experienced freezing, fuel, or mechanical issues.
New Yorkers may feel fortunate that the hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost power were mainly in the southeastern section of the country, but it could have been them. New York ISO is part of the Eastern Interconnection grid and gets natural gas from the same interstate pipeline systems as PJM, and the Southeast. As demand for power rose in the frigid temperatures and the supply of natural gas plunged by as much as 54 percent, the pressure in New York’s gas pipelines plummeted, putting New York City at risk of a disastrous natural gas system collapse that would have taken months to remedy.
The WSJ Editorial Board warned of a less resilient grid because of the retirement of coal and nuclear power plants due to “heavily subsidized green energy and cheaper natural gas.” New York, like other states with a growing dependence on natural gas-fired electricity, is increasingly vulnerable to outages. Coal plants typically maintain an average on-site 30-day supply so are not vulnerable to the same supply disruptions as natural gas. In fact, during Elliott, the coal fleet was a major source of increased electricity in 42 states providing 47 percent of additional electricity in the PJM Interconnection region, 39 percent in the Southwest Power Pool region, and 37 percent in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator region.
New York closed its last coal plant in 2020, but other states still have options. Utility companies are under tremendous political pressure to accelerate the grid transition, but state utility commissions should be cautious. Every coal plant that shuts down puts added pressure on the already strained natural gas infrastructure system. Since last year, the retirement of more than 14,000 MW of coal capacity has been delayed or canceled mostly due to reliability concerns, a small but important step in the right direction.
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