Natural Gas: America’s Future Electric Grid?
In August 2003, cascading electric blackouts across the northeast United States left roughly 50 million people without power and cost billions of dollars in economic losses. That incident called into question the reliability of America’s electric power grid.
The interconnected system of transmission and distribution networks commonly known as America’s “electric grid” is broken.
“The North American energy grid is aging, increasingly fragile, buffeted by deregulation and market forces, stressed by relentlessly increasing demand, operating at near capacity with decreasing staffs and reliant on electronic components,” according to Paula Scalingi, an expert on critical infrastructure protection.
Today’s electric grid was not designed to survive strong winds, storm surges, falling trees and flying debris and seems ludicrously inadequate for the demands of America’s increasingly digital and connected economy. The costs of hardening the electric grid will be vast. One widely cited study by the Brattle Group estimated that the electric utility industry will need to invest a $1.5 trillion to $2.0 trillion in infrastructure upgrades by 2030.
Despite spending epic sums of money on the so-called “smart grid,” the electric power grid seems as stupid as it was before spending billions in federal stimulus dollars.
Why throw good money after bad if we have a compelling alternative? And make no mistake about it, we have a compelling alternative to the conventional electric grid. It is commonly called the North American natural gas infrastructure.
The U.S. natural gas pipeline network is a highly integrated transmission and distribution grid of producing wells, gathering lines, processors, transmission and distribution pipelines, compressor stations, and storage facilities. It can transport natural gas to and from nearly any location in the lower 48 States with over 90% efficiency.
Unlike the conventional electric power grid, the natural gas grid rarely goes down.
Per a recent report by the Gas Technology Institute:
The North American natural gas infrastructure is an interconnected system . . . serving over 75 million customers with a history of close to 100 percent reliability . . . The integration of natural gas with electricity into a highly reliable energy delivery infrastructure would provide an extraordinary combined level of reliability, especially when coupled with applications interconnected with this integrated grid such as backup electricity generation, microgrids, and loops of heated or chilled water managed as thermal grids.
Natural gas storage provides an enormous amount of flexibility for the gas grid. There are currently more than 400 underground gas storage fields in operation. Gas storage fields are like giant, dirt-cheap batteries that allow power generators to ramp up operations quickly, manage imbalances and maintain reliability during disruptions in production, processing or off-shore delivery infrastructure.
Here are more metrics on America’s natural gas grid:
- 305,000 miles of interstate and intrastate natural gas transmission pipelines.
- More than 1,400 compressor stations that maintain pressure on the natural gas pipeline.
- More than 11,000 delivery points, 5,000 receipt points, and 1,400 interconnection points providing for the transfer of natural gas.
- 24 hubs or market centers that provide additional interconnections.
- 49 locations where natural gas can be imported/exported via pipelines.
- 8 liquefied natural gas import facilities.
Of course, the case for using the natural grid as an alternative to the conventional electric power grid is really just another way of construing the case for distributed power microgrids and all that they entail. [DISCLOSURE: I work for a distributed power company and am otherwise a true believer in the economic and environmental benefits of clean DG] Indeed, the microgrid is the natural gas grid with a few bells and whistles in the form of solar panels and small wind turbines. The Galvin Electricity Initiative, an institutional champion for microgrids, described the big picture implications of the distributed generation paradigm:
America is at a critical inflection point, a metaphorical 1776 of energy. We can choose to maintain the grid as it now exists and is regulated, a course favored by most incumbent monopoly stakeholders who are as figuratively entrenched in law and society as was the British monarchy of the 1700′s. Or, with a revolutionary, free-market change in the rules of how the industry operates, we can reinvent the system to best serve the needs of consumers.
The nation, in fact, has an unprecedented opportunity to create a 21st century grid that operates far more intelligently, reliably, efficiently and cost-effectively. It would stimulate the economy and expedite the development of clean energy while reducing the need for new conventional power plants. Most important, it would give consumers ultimate control over their electricity use and cost. It is a revolution that would compel utilities to evolve, to focus more on consumer needs and service quality.
The belt and suspender strategy that has defined the electric power industry has paralyzed the technical evolution of electric power grid. The centralized paradigm may still enjoy some modest economic advantages, but that will soon change. The engineering action is concentrated on the small, modular generating platforms designed to provide power locally. Natural gas and the transmission grid that carries it from wellheads to consumers is the key to unlocking those emerging platforms.
The electric grid may have gotten America where it is today, but it will not take us where we want to go tomorrow without the natural gas grid.