By: Jude Clemente

I have already shown here and here how U.S. natural gas power plants continue to increase in efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the high flexibility of these plants will also be increasingly critical in the years ahead. That’s because gas is the backup source for more wind and solar power, which are naturally intermittent and need gas peaking plants to compensate for when “the wind doesn’t blow” and “the sun doesn’t shine.” Gas combined cycle plants have a quick “ramp up” ability in a matter of minutes to generate electricity for those unforeseen periods when the wind and/or solar option goes away. As headlined here by MIT Technology Review: “A Gas Power Plant to Make Renewables More Practical.”

Looking forward, more laws requiring more wind and solar like Renewable Portfolio Standards will also require a more flexible power grid, with natural gas at the center of that. As seen in the figure below, this is why as more wind and solar generation capacity get added, even more natural gas capacity is added. As I figure it, some 35 states will have natural gas as their main source of electricity by 2022. Nowhere is this more clear than in the great state of Florida, with 21 million people now our third largest state. The “sunshine state” is now surging toward having gas generating 75-80% of its electricity by 2022. I figure that the U.S. needs to add 25,000 megawatts of gas peaking capacity to our grid over the next decade to support the wind and solar build-outs.

There are limits to the growth of renewables that typically go ignored. That’s because of “high grading,” where the best sites with the best wind and solar resource get picked first. As these “sweet spots” get exhausted, this means that new builds for wind and solar won’t be as easy as some claim. This is why wind, in particular, is expected to eventually start to slow down drastically for new capacity builds in the 2020s, as seen in the figure below gathered from U.S. Department of Energy forecasts. In stark contrast, combined cycle gas plants aren’t geographically limited: they can really be built anywhere.

Data source: EIA

Wind and solar capacity are set to soar, and as the reliable, flexible backup, so will gas capacity.

So, gas is the glue of the new U.S. electric power system, not just adding critical flexibility but also reliability. A May 2017 study here by The Brattle Group reports that specific advantages of natural gas – such as ramp rates, dispatchability, frequency response – are fundamental to grid reliability, and will become even more vital as more wind and solar come onto the grid. Gas is easing the adoption of more wind and solar and changing the definition of baseload power. To illustrate, “New York’s grid operator yesterday said the state’s grid can sustain the loss of a major nuclear station near New York City if some combination of three new natural gas projects replaces it,” here.

Some of the most ardent supporters of renewables like President Obama are also huge supporters of natural gas. Carl Pope, former Executive Director of the Sierra Club, understood how more natural gas is the key to more wind and solar. To achieve full acceptance for renewables, their higher costs must be controlled. Gas is critical because it will help limit price increases as we move toward more wind and solar, which are more expensive. In short, higher electricity bills are the fastest way for Americans to turn against renewables. Our low power rates give us an essential competitive advantage: U.S. prices are 12 cents per kWh, compared to 35 cents in Europe. I’ve already shown here why our gas prices will continue to remain low, and I’ve already shown here how our domestic gas supply is essentially unlimited.

Not surprisingly though, Carl Pope was pushed aside by less practical members of the renewable energy business that refuse to support any other source of energy, regardless of how important they may be for more wind and solar development. Renewables and natural gas are not mutually exclusive. The reality is that they complement each other, but unfortunately neither the gas nor the renewable industry promotes this collaboration enough.



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