Natural Gas: The Indispensable Fuel for Energy Security

Natural Gas: The Indispensable Fuel for Energy Security

Ed Ireland
Energy Economist and Writer at

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post regarding indispensable natural gas from our friend Ed Ireland at “Thoughts about Energy and Economics.” It is a reader-supported publication, so please go there, “Like” it, share it with friends and colleagues, and become a paid subscriber. Your support for Ed is greatly appreciated!]

The summer of 2023 has been a challenge for U.S. power grids. With El Nino increasing global temperatures and the Honga-Tonga volcano eruption blasting unprecedented quantities of water vapor into the stratosphere, creating a heat trap, summer temperatures have soared. These temperatures have challenged the nation’s power grids as they strain to provide enough electricity to keep millions of air conditioners running.

The Texas ERCOT grid has been in the limelight this summer because power generation has been strained, and ERCOT has made numerous requests for voluntary demand reduction. The increased electricity demand is due to the significant population growth in Texas, coupled with the lack of wind, which has reduced wind power generation capacity, even though Texas has the most wind generation capacity of any grid in the U.S. The Texas power grid also receives much attention because it is the nation’s only independent power grid. It is not interconnected with any other U.S. grids and, therefore, cannot share or buy electricity from neighboring states and grids.

The Texas grid is much-watched because it is the nation’s leader in wind and solar power generation due to an aggressive program to attract wind and solar enacted legislation in 1999. The results have been impressive in terms of installed wind and solar generating capacity but disastrous in terms of the impact of wind and solar on the reliability of the Texas power grid.

The hot summer temperatures have highlighted an important weakness of wind power. During hot summer afternoons, wind speeds drop, causing significant reductions in wind power generation. Most summer days in Texas start with wind power contributing 10% to 20% of total power generation in the state, but by early afternoon, it drops below 10%, usually to 5% or less, and stays low until sunrise the following day. The real crunch time for the Texas grid starts at about 5 PM as solar generation begins to wane and electricity demand increases as people return home and turn on the air conditioning. By 8 PM, when the sun has set, solar power is near zero, wind power is low, and demand remains high.

An example of a typical warm Texas summer evening is shown below for August 26, 2023. The screen capture at 9:29 PM shows solar generation is at zero, wind is providing 6.6% of total generation, coal is 17.3%, nuclear is 7%, and natural gas has ramped up to 68.5% of total power generation, keeping the grid operational. Night after night this summer, natural gas generation has saved the Texas grid from collapse due to the failure of wind power generation.

natural gas

The trend of natural gas coming to the rescue when wind and solar fail has been a defining characteristic of the Texas grid for years, but the importance of natural gas in stabilizing grids can be seen in all major US power grids. The graphic below shows the large amount of power generated by natural gas from January of 2023 to August 2023, which has increased significantly from the same period in 2022, as shown in data compiled by Refinitiv:

natural gas

Without natural gas, every major power grid in the U.S., including CAISO (California), Midcontinent, PJM, and Northwest, would have been in big trouble due to their increased reliance on wind and solar. This is not what wind and solar generation proponents want to admit, but it is the reality. The numbers don’t lie.

On August 23, 2023, Reuters reported:

U.S. power producers increased output of electricity from natural gas by more than from clean power sources in the opening eight months of 2023, as electricity firms grappled with low wind speeds and heavy demand from power-hungry air conditioners.

Total power generation across the lower 48 states through Aug. 20, 2023, declined by 2.1% from the same period in 2022, data compiled by Refinitiv shows. But generation from natural gas climbed by over 10%, widening gas’ lead as the country’s main source of electricity.

The share of power generated from gas averaged 40.4% through mid-August, up from under 36% in the same period in 2022.

That increase in gas’s share of the generation mix eclipsed the growth seen in electricity generated from clean power sources, including nuclear, solar, wind and hydro power. (Emphasis added).

The good news is that natural gas is readily available in the U.S. as supplies continue to increase, with production from the Marcellus Shale and the Permian Basin leading the way, as shown below.

Natural gas

The increasing importance of natural gas in the power sector is evident. Natural gas is coming to the rescue when wind and solar power fails. With coal-fired power generation closing at an alarming rate, new nuclear power held up by the slow-moving Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and wind power proving its weaknesses daily, it is especially troubling that the EPA has declared war on natural gas in the proposed “New Source Performance Standards.”

The United States needs more natural gas production, not less. Federal energy policy needs to get out of the way of our natural gas resources being developed.

As emphasized by the public comments in response to the EPA’s proposed new rules, U.S. power grids are becoming increasingly undependable due to the destabilizing effects of wind and solar. Without sufficient natural gas power generation, U.S. power grids will fail. This cannot be allowed to happen.

This article originally appeared at the excellent Thoughts about Energy and Economics. (subscribe today!) and is reposted here with the permission of the author.

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