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Strong Natural Gas Storage Boosted Texas Grid Amid Winter Storm

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The Texas power grid was able to call upon a strong supply of dispatchable natural gas held in storage to boost electricity generation and home heating as an historic winter storm hit the state last month.

The storm, which saw cold temperatures drop far below average, froze infrastructure, and prompted an historic spike in energy demand. As Energy In Depth noted last week, while every energy fuel source faced challenges, natural gas carried the state’s energy mix. As the storm raged, power generation from natural gas jumped from 307,208 megawatthours on February 8 to nearly 900,000 MWh on February 14.

There are many reasons that natural gas – which in normal times, interchanges with wind throughout the day to provide the majority of Texas’s power generation – far surpassed other energy sources in power generation during the storm. One important reason was the ability to withdraw natural gas from storage to help meet surging demand.

This fact was highlighted during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing this week on the Texas winter storm where Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) asked, “Why are additional pipeline investments so key to maintaining reliability?” As James Robb, President and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, explained, having robust natural gas infrastructure helps ensure that there is plenty of the fuel held in storage to meet demand:

“The gas system and the electric system … are not just two systems that can co-exist separately with touchpoints. Gas reliability and electric reliability are inherently connected. One of the issues that we see, and we see this clearly in California, because we have the most solar buildout in California, is the ability of the gas system to support very rapid power plant ramps. Particularly in the afternoon, when solar comes off, the power demand continues to grow and natural gas is currently the only resource that can meet that peak, and the amount of gas that those power plants suck out of the gas system is extraordinary, and storage turns out to be one of the key assets to be able to maintain pressure in the gas system in that scenario.”  (emphasis added)

As a testament of this, the Energy Information Administration reported that historic weather across the county, including in Texas, led to equally historic withdraws of natural gas:

“Significant demand for natural gas in mid-February led to the second-largest reported withdrawal of natural gas from storage in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report (WNGSR). Weekly stocks fell by 338 billion cubic feet (Bcf) in the week ending February 19, 2021, nearly three times the average withdrawal for mid-February. A record amount of natural gas, 156 Bcf, was withdrawn during that week in the South Central region, which includes Texas.”

The below EIA chart, with the yellow dot signifying the week of February 19, shows how much natural gas was relied upon:

As the American Gas Association’s Richard Meyer tweeted:

Texas storage withdrawals increased *700%* from late January levels reached maximum levels during the cold event. pic.twitter.com/bWVjRa9PaG

— Richard Meyer (@RichardMeyerDC) February 24, 2021

It wasn’t just Texas that was able to rely on natural gas storage withdraws, but the entire South-Central United States, which experienced similar cold temperatures, as Meyer notes:

Natural gas storage stepped up in a big way to meet demand across the country.

S&P Global estimates in its supply/demand report 350 Bcf withdrawals last week.

US South Central storage draws doubled from pre-event levels, exceeding 20 Bcf per day from February 12 to 18. Big. pic.twitter.com/XmpMxTQLY3

— Richard Meyer (@RichardMeyerDC) February 23, 2021

Being able to hold vast quantities of natural gas in storage shows why the fuel is so important in supplying reliable, dispatchable power to the grid. Natural gas can be pulled from storage at any time, especially during extreme events. In fact, a recent Brattle Group study found that natural gas outperforms all other energy sources during emergencies, explaining:

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

Naturally Complimentary

The Washington Post succinctly summed up why “wind and solar have a secret friend: natural gas” in an article a few years ago that explained key findings from a National Bureau of Economic Research study on the complementary nature of these fuels:

“Because of the particular nature of clean energy sources like solar and wind, you can’t simply add them to the grid in large volumes and think that’s the end of the story. Rather, because these sources of electricity generation are “intermittent” — solar fluctuates with weather and the daily cycle, wind fluctuates with the wind — there has to be some means of continuing to provide electricity even when they go dark. And the more renewables you have, the bigger this problem can be.

“Now, a new study suggests that at least so far, solving that problem has ironically involved more fossil fuels — and more particularly, installing a large number of fast-ramping natural gas plants, which can fill in quickly whenever renewable generation slips.” (emphasis added)

Texas isn’t the only state that relies on natural gas to provide dispatchable power alongside a growing renewable sector. In Colorado, where freezing cold winters are the norm, the state’s largest utility is counting on natural gas to balance out renewables, as CPR News reports:

“Xcel, like other utilities, hopes to use natural gas to supply reliable power even as renewable sources fluctuate with the weather. … The proposed plan from Xcel Energy calls for 1,300 megawatts in ‘dispatchable’ generation to balance the power supply.”

Conclusion

Every fuel source faced challenges during the unprecedented cold that hit Texas in February, but the ability to quickly bring stored natural gas online to support the power mix helped prevent a tragic situation from becoming even worse. This winter storm demonstrates the importance of having a diverse set of complementary energy sources – including ample and dispatchable storage – working together to ensure grid reliability and resiliency. As Christi Craddick, Chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, explained in her testimony:

“Some media outlets would have you believe that natural gas producers and frozen transmission pipes caused the power shortage across the state, but I sit before you today to state that these operators were not the problem — the oil and gas industry was the solution.”

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