Cheap Natural Gas Prices: Prelude to Energy Unreliability and Price Volatility

Posted on May 14, 2013 by Michael Hockley

Cheap gas prices driven by a boom in new shale gas development, coupled with more stringent emissions controls for coal fired plants, are causing a shift from coal to natural gas as the primary source of electric power in the United States.  In the short term, most welcome this shift because natural gas produces significantly fewer greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions.  But it appears increasingly certain that in the long run, this shift will result in decreased energy grid reliability and significantly higher electricity costs due to natural gas price volatility.

A recent Duke University study concludes that the cost of compliance with new emissions standards could make almost two-thirds of existing coal fired plants “as expensive as natural gas even if natural gas prices rise.”  This combination of low gas prices and the high cost of coal emissions compliance already has resulted in replacement of many coal plants instead of retro-fitting them with expensive environmental controls.  Add to that the uncertainty of potential future GHG emissions standards, and construction of new coal fired power plants is at a near standstill.  

The Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute (“RMCMI”) estimates that these factors will combine to force closure of up to 100 gigawatts of coal plant capacity, or approximately one third of the coal-fired fleet, resulting in a net increase of 32 gigawatts of gas capacity in the next three years. By 2020, RMCMI estimates that gas generating capacity will exceed that of coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric combined.  The RMCMI further projects that the shift to natural gas generation will cause the demand for natural gas to exceed even the most rosy new shale gas production predictions, causing volatile natural gas price swings.  

Grid reliability problems and gas price volatility were highlighted by Gordon van Welie, the head of New England’s power grid, during recent testimony before Congress.  He observed that more than half of New England's electricity is generated from natural gas, which has displaced a more diversified mix of oil, coal, gas and nuclear power over the past ten years.  

He testified that even though natural gas generally is plentiful, New England’s inadequate gas pipeline capacity limits supplies during peak usage.  For example, during a recent extreme cold snap in New England, “natural gas prices in late January spiked to $34/MMBtu, in contrast to prices below $4/MMBtu across most of the country.” The high gas prices caused wholesale electricity price spikes of more than 100% in January and 300% in February 2013 compared with 2012.  There also were “multiple instances where generators could not get fuel to run,” including one instance when more than 6,000 MW were offline due to fuel shortages.  Testimony at 7.  To avoid even worse problems in the future, he urges increased construction of pipeline infrastructure, but construction of gas pipelines will take time.  In the short and intermediate term, he predicts continued price volatility and grid reliability problems during peak usage.  

In addition to pressures from increased usage of natural gas in the United States, there also is increasing support within the Obama Administration to side with those seeking to export liquefied natural gas because prices in foreign markets are much higher.  If the export of natural gas becomes a reality, then domestic gas prices likely will increase even more.  

Although the vast shale gas reserves are fueling a shift to natural gas power generation with a corresponding reduction in GHGs, over-reliance on natural gas will almost certainly have the unintended consequence of causing grid reliability problems and volatile price spikes.  This likelihood argues for a more balanced energy portfolio with a broad mix of power from renewable, hydropower, coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas.  To insure future stable energy prices and reliable energy production, electric utilities and state and federal regulators should take a long term view when deciding whether to shift to natural gas generation and decommission existing coal and nuclear plants.

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