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Natural Gas Beats Renewables in Providing Steady, Reliable Power in Emergencies

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Natural gas is the best energy source to secure steady, cost-efficient power during natural disasters, according to a report by the consulting company The Brattle Group. This is crucial for regions in the country prone to natural disasters, such as Northern California that has faced multi-day power outages during the summer wildfire season.

The findings of the report are especially relevant for California, which continues to encourage cleaner energy sources. Fueling microgrids with natural gas, instead of diesel – as is used today – would facilitate a clean transition while securing a cost-effective and efficient power supply for the region, especially during a natural disaster or weather emergency.

The report analyzed and compared the resilience of natural gas, renewable natural gas (RNG), solar and a hybrid system (including natural gas) in microgrids generators. Natural gas outperformed all other sources in several areas.

Here are three key arguments in favor of using natural gas for emergency preparedness:

#1 Natural gas generators can come online instantly

When dealing with a natural disaster that will most likely disrupt power without notice and for several days, the greatest factor when considering emergency preparedness is speed. And although microgrids are designed to ensure that power supply continues uninterruptedly, natural gas is the energy source that can be activated most quickly. According to the report:

“Natural gas and renewable natural gas (RNG) microgrid options in this study can perform without advance notice for any length of outage.”

Natural gas’ resilience also becomes more evident when compared with solar-fueled generators, which require “advance notification” to perform adequately during a state of emergency. This comparative advantage is essential when dealing with wildfires in California that could potentially halt electricity distribution for days.

#2 Natural gas is more economically and technically feasible

When compared with the other energy sources tested, natural gas outperformed in costs too. This factor was calculated by analyzing several variables that determined which source would be more cost-efficient: physical footprint, installation time, rapid response and operational constraints. The report concluded that:

“Under the assumptions in this study, the capital and operating costs of the natural gas microgrid are roughly offset by its market revenue potential. In other words, the natural gas microgrid could nearly break even over its lifetime, in addition to providing highly valuable resilience to a local distribution substation”.

In contrast, and despite solar’s expected future economic viability and tax benefits in California, this technology was dismissed immediately in the report mostly because of its size and operational constraints.

#3 CO2 emissions are minimal

For decades now, natural gas has helped the United States reduce its CO2 emissions. Substituting diesel with natural gas would ensure that emissions remain low even during an emergency, especially when considering that wildfires cast a significant amount of emissions into the atmosphere.

Additionally, natural gas emissions derived from the emergency response microgrids would be modest and not impact California’s clean energy transition:

“The extremely low fuel consumption by natural gas microgrids will have an inconsequential impact on natural gas consumption in California. For instance, if 500 megawatts of natural gas microgrids were deployed for resiliency, their annual gas consumption would equate to only 0.0003 percent of statewide total gas consumption in 2018.”

Although it is true that some options like RNG or solar could provide carbon-free replacements for diesel generators, natural gas represents a competitive alternative with its low emissions, rapid startup time, and economic viability.

Conclusions

Natural gas has proven to be the most reliable, flexible, and cost-efficient energy source for decades. Its carbon footprint is minimal compared to other fossil fuels and its cost-savings and adaptability outperform renewables despite their favorable economic context. Thus, when deciding what fuel is appropriate for microgrid generation natural gas needs to be considered as the most viable alternative.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 11, 2020

Has The Brattle Group's report been published in a reputable, peer-reviewed academic journal? If not, what would lead an independent observer to believe it wasn't simply promotional material sponsored by a gas industry trade group?

Thanks.

Gene Nelson's picture
Gene Nelson on Jun 12, 2020

Nonprofit CPUC Intervenor, Californians for Green Nuclear Power,, Inc. (CGNP) already made a number of filings in several different CPUC Proceedings establishing that safe, reliable, cost-effective zero-emissions Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DCPP) is a valuable California generation resource to help the state recover from large-scale natural disasters such as wildfires and big earthquakes. CGNP's most recent filing in the natural gas reliability proceeding R.20-01-007 is a good introduction. https://tinyurl.com/DCPP-CPUC is the 17-page filing and   https://tinyurl.com/Nuclear-Safety is the 6-page Appendix. Please contact me at Government [at] CGNP dot org to obtain copies, as I just discovered the CPUC has recently removed these  filings that were accepted and posted on March 19, 2020.  

In Proceeding R.16-02-007, the CPUC Integrated Resource Plan Proceeding, CGNP cited the Supplemental Report to the US Geological Service (USGS) for the 2008 "Shakeout Scenario" - Oil and Gas Pipelines Prepared for United States Geological Survey Pasadena CA and California Geological Survey Sacramento CA Under contract to SPA Risk LLC Denver CO By Donald Ballantyne MMI Engineering, Inc. Tacoma WA May 2008 The ShakeOut Scenario: U.S. Geological Survey Open File Report 2008-1150 California Geological Survey Preliminary Report 25 version 1.0 U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1324 California Geological Survey Special Report 207 version 1.0 (Note: over the course of the ShakeOut Scenario, the project name evolved. Where a study mentions the SoSAFE Scenario or San Andreas Fault Scenario, it refers to what is now named the ShakeOut Scenario.) 
http://www.sparisk.com/pubs/ShakeOutScenarioPipelinesBallantyne.pdf  Note in particular the color photograph in Figure 7, a large-diameter natural gas pipeline that failed in compression during an earthquake.

On the other hand, DCPP is a robustly-designed and well-maintained California nuclear power plant that will operate safely while subject to any credible earthquake in the vicinity of the plant. In contrast to Fukushima dai-ichi, DCPP is sited in bedrock high above the Pacific Ocean. DCPP's elevation is more than twice that of any credible tsunami activity.  CGNP holds that in light of the well-established earthquake hazard, California is dangerously over-dependent on natural gas as a dispatchable energy source. Diablo Canyon's generous power output could be a real life-saver for California's roughly 40 million residents to help recover from an inevitable large-scale California earthquake. 

CGNP made several filings showing the public safety benefits of DCPP's reliable power during PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events, when power flows from PG&E's 167 hydropower dams in the Sierras will be subject to curtailment during the 2020 California wildfire season. After PG&E's power transmission lines were identified as the likely ignition source for the Kincade wildfire that charred a significant portion of Sonoma County in late October, 2019, PG&E will probably be more conservative during upcoming PSPS events. Per CalFire, the Kincade Fire cause is still under investigation as of June 11, 2020.  

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jun 12, 2020

The post references a report published by the Brattle Group, but abstracts material from the report without including the context. That makes the post itself a bit hard to interpret. You have to read the referenced report to get a clear picture.

The title of the report is Decarbonized Resiliance: Assessing Alternatives to Diesel Powered Backup. It's not a research paper of the sort for which peer review would serve as a gateway to inclusion in the scientific body of literature on a topic. It's a white paper and modeling study that sets out a range of options for dealing with a particular issue, and attempts to quantify the tradeoffs. In this case, the issue is resilience of the power supply to communities. Presumably, it was motivated by the disruption caused by the preventive blackouts imposed in Northern California by PG&E last summer at times of very high fire risk. However it would also apply for outages caused by downing of transmission lines in extreme weather events. 

The report strikes me as professional and well done. It can perhaps be criticized for the limited range of options considered, but it does a good job of spelling out what those options are. It doesn't assert claims to broader generatlity than what the options studied would justify. All of the options examined -- there are four of them -- involve microgrids. The microgrids can be islanded from the main grid, and incorporate sufficient storage and generation capacity to maintain backup service until reconnection to the main grid is possible.

The report doesn't consider any options involving nuclear power. It takes a conventional view of what "backup" means, and nobody thinks of nuclear as "backup". The options that the report considers in essence just change the side of the meter on which the backup capacity is deployed. Behind the meter, in its traditional placement, backup is the concern and business of whatever facility has decided that its operations require backup power. In front of the meter, on the microgrid where the options studied place it, it's a community service supported by the local utility.

None of the options explicity consider reverse power flow, in which local "backup" facilities are able to export power to the grid at large. That's technically feasible, and reasonable as a way to manage peak loads. It also opens the door to small modular reactors -- if and when they become widely deployed -- to serve as resilient community resources.

Gene Nelson's picture
Gene Nelson on Jun 15, 2020

CGNP's comments focus on the likely - unexamined larger-scale consequences of PG&E's new Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) policy. CGNP recently searched the North American Electric Reliability Corporation's (NERC's) website. While NERC mentioned PG&E's PSPS policy, there appears to be no detailed analysis of the potentially larger-scale adverse impacts of PSPS policy shutting down bulk electrical system (BES) transmission lines that either import power or transmit it from hydropower generators. Instead, NERC only mentions PG&E's (lower voltage) distribution lines.

When CGNP raised these likely adverse consequences in its filings with the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC,)  there was no apparent CPUC response. The Kincade Fire investigation results may change the dynamic Regrettably,  ignoring CGNP's testimony has been the default CPUC mode since 2016. Perhaps the CPUC anticipates that the lack of a guaranteed appellate pathway for aggrieved parties in CPUC Decisions will remain indefinitely.  A more accurate description for CPUC's conduct could be "regulatory hubris." 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jun 17, 2020

Regulatory hubris is hard to fight and hard to avoid. It's human nature to construct narratives in which one can see oneself as a "good guy". Evolutionary psychology has a lot to say about the origins of self-deception and our ability to rationalize actions and beliefs that serve our interests. For regulators, the narratives they follow often lead to hubris, even with the best of intentions. Hubris is a natural consequence of power. 

Nuclear and variable renewables are inherently antagonistic. In the financial ecosystem of a capitilist economy, their respective natures give rise to conflicting financial incentives. The intermittent nature of wind and solar mean that at any given time, they will either be producing too much or too little power for available demand. With marginal cost of production essentially zero, VR assets make good margins when they're producing too little. When they're producing too much, they drive the wholesale price of power to zero and are then forced to curtail.

Removing baseload nuclear power from the grid increases the load avalable for VR assets to serve. That increases the proportion of time they won't be producing enough and decreases the proportion of time they'll be producing too much. Hence more revenue from the same VR assets.

Given that underlying reality, it's easy for those whose financial welfare is bound up in "clean energy" to find convincing reasons for shutting down nuclear power. The narratives they've built have generally succeeded in winning buy-in from regulators (at least in California). But it's all a kind of stage play motivated by the interests of the players. Carbon emissions and climate change are major props in the play, but it really isn't about them.

I think there are ways to redesign the rules and incentive structures to better serve climate interests. But I can't think of any way to do so within the constraints of free market capitalist ideology.

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