It’s been an early start to winter this year across much of the Central and Eastern United States. And plunging temperatures have highlighted a surprising fact: Not only are natural-gas prices soaring, but fuel stockpiles have dipped to unusually low levels.
It’s a somewhat unexpected turn of events — since the United States has been the world’s top producer of natural gas since 2009. But a number of factors are combining to significantly alter the landscape for utilities in the United States that rely on natural-gas-fired power generation.
For starters, last winter was a whopper. A deep freeze hit the United States in January, taxing much of the nation’s power grid to the limit. Not only were natural-gas pipelines spread thin in delivering fuel to power plants, but available gas was prioritized for home heating.
PJM Interconnection, which oversees electricity supplies for 13 states and the District of Columbia, published a subsequent review of the January 2018 deep freeze. And what PJM reported, particularly for demand centered around a very cold Jan. 7, raises questions about the nation’s current natural-gas capacity.
At peak winter demand, 5,913 megawatts of natural-gas capacity was simply unavailable due to “supply outages.” And more than 8,000 megawatts of gas-plant capacity was forced to shut down. Overall, more than 23,000 megawatts was unavailable—12.1% of PJM’s total capacity.
Thankfully, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), the nation’s coal plants came to the rescue. Coal-fired power plants ramped up to provide 55% of daily incremental power at the time. The DOE says that, without the sturdy baseload power generation produced by coal, “the Eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts.”
The 2018 winter left other troubles in its wake, too. The late arrival of spring meant gas producers had less time to refill the nation’s storage capacity. And even as utilities have been playing catch-up on refills, the recent record Thanksgiving cold snap further siphoned stockpiles.
As a result, U.S. natural gas storage currently remains at unusually low levels. An analysis in Forbes is now warning of “historically low gas storage” — and cautioning that the U.S. “cannot meet winter gas demand without storage.”
The potential for a real natural gas shortage isn’t simply a hypothetical. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) says that storage of natural gas is running roughly 16% lower than its five-year average. And a MarketWatch analysis similarly reported that the U.S. is experiencing a “15-year low in stockpiles.”
Ironically, even as natural-gas supplies are tightening in the U.S., producers are focused on shipping more gas overseas. Natural-gas exports are expected to triple by the end of 2019. And all of this will undoubtedly hit U.S. consumers in the wallet, since natural-gas prices are now rising steadily. Last month, the price of natural gas rose NGF19, +0.54% to the highest level in more than four years.
It would be comforting to say that, if any unexpected problems crop up, coal and nuclear power plants will simply jump in to save the day. But many coal and nuclear units have been retired over the past decade, and more are on the chopping block.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) notes that more than 46.5 gigawatts of coal-fired generation has been shut down since 2011, and another 19 gigawatts of coal capacity is slated to close in the next decade.
As for nuclear-power plants, six units have been retired since 2012, with 14 more set to close by 2025.
All of this suggests a worst-case scenario wherein the United States experiences a cold snap, and sufficient power generation simply isn’t available to meet demand. The rapid dismantlement of coal over the past decade, plus an inability to add new natural-gas pipeline capacity portends real problems — and at a time when Americans need reliable electricity.
The obvious answer is to maintain sufficient baseload power from all sources — including coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewables. It would be wise, then, not to hastily eliminate the coal and nuclear plants that — as the 2018 winter demonstrated — continue to carry America’s peak power needs on their backs.