Electric-grid planners ask: What if there's too much natural gas?

Natural gas is fast becoming the dominant source of the region’s electricity, but a parade of energy experts Wednesday cast doubt on whether it was smart to rely too much on a single fuel source.

“Do we have too much gas generation?” asked Andy Ott, president and chief executive of PJM Interconnection Inc., the Audubon, Pa., company that manages the power grid in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

At a symposium PJM organized Wednesday, experts asked whether policymakers need to put the brakes on a massive shift underway to switch the nation’s power-generation resources away from coal and nuclear power plants to new supplies generated by natural gas, wind, and solar.

According to a study PJM released March 30, new domestic supplies of natural gas that have emerged in the last decade could reliably provide up to 86 percent of the region’s power needs, if sufficient infrastructure were put in place.

But Wednesday’s Grid 20/20 symposium at the Marriott Airport Hotel explored the follow-on question of whether reliance on a single fuel source might make the electrical system less resilient, and more vulnerable to attack.

Fuel Sources for the Local Electricity Grid

In the last decade, coal and natural gas have reversed roles as fuel sources for electric power produced in the PJM Interconnection, the regional grid that includes Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Coal is expected to decline from 42 percent in 2007 to 27 percent in 2020, while the share for natural gas is expected to increase from 33 percent to 43 percent over the same period. PJM says that the electric grid can remain reliable even if the role of gas grows dramatically.
Capacity by electric fuel source, in megawatts
Staff Graphic

While low-cost natural gas is making it difficult for some coal and nuclear plants to compete in PJM’s competitive wholesale power markets, several speakers said a diverse fuel mixture provides security.  

“We have found diversity to be very, very important,” said Mark McCullough, executive vice president for generation at AEP, a large Midwestern utility operator. “It does allow you to address some of the fogginess in the crystal ball because we don’t know what’s ahead of us in 10 years, and we need to dial an element of that into the planning process.”

Natural-gas plants, though flexible and efficient, depend on fuel delivered by pipelines, a potential Achilles’ heel. Disruptions from a “low-probability, high-impact event” – a storm or a disaster – could interrupt power generation.

“What’s going to happen if we have too much gas?” asked Jackie Roberts, director of the West Virginia Consumer Advocate Division. She suggested that a regulatory body such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) needs to organize natural-gas infrastructure build-out, much as regional grid operators coordinate construction of power lines and generation plants.

“The gas industry does not have the structure the electric industry does for efficient planning and operation of the gas system, and this is essential for us because gas is so prevalent now,” she said.

Grid planners, previously concerned primarily with weather and mechanical failures, said their focus has shifted to potential terrorist threats. But they worried about the power sector’s dependence on critical pipeline infrastructure outside their ability to defend.

“What’s your recovery plan if a pipeline is lost?” asked Joseph McClelland, director of FERC’s Office of Energy Infrastructure Security. He said planners needed to reckon with a coordinated pipeline attack.

AEP’s McCullough said his company has a large unit devoted to cybersecurity “to make sure we’re up to speed on the technologies and the strategies that these evildoers are moving through, so that we can prepare ourselves.”

The attacks are not theoretical, he said: “We’re getting tens of thousands of attempts a day on our system. It’s a very real issue.”