Last month, the polar vortex brought below-zero temperatures to the Midwest and Great Plains. Over 220 million Americans experienced below-freezing temperatures across the lower-48 states, and about 26 million people were living with temperatures at or below -20 degrees. Despite the large amount of wind power in the Midwest, coal and natural gas provided about 80 percent of the electricity needed to keep the power and heat on, according to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which manages that grid. However, utility companies in parts of the Upper Midwest had to ask customers to turn down their thermostats to ensure that there was enough natural gas to meet demand. During the extreme cold, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator declared a “maximum generation event,” calling on idle power plants from Minnesota to Louisiana to meet demand.
In Michigan, Consumers Energy—which serves 1.8 million residents—asked customers to set their temperature at 65 degrees or lower and large industrial users to lower usage. General Motors suspended operations at more than 11 plants and asked 20,000 employees at its Warren Tech Center to stay home during the worst period. Ford Motor Co. lowered the temperature at some plants and stopped heat treatment and paint production.
Consumers Energy has boasted of being one of the most aggressive utilities in the country at closing coal plants and replacing that electricity production with natural gas and increasing amounts of renewable energy. That strategy increased demand for natural gas quickly, and since the utility services natural gas consumers for heating and business uses as well as becoming a more significant consumer of natural gas to generate electricity, it found itself with an insufficient supply of natural gas.
Natural gas demand was expected to hit 3.7 billion cubic feet, compared with a regular winter day’s average of 2.3 billion—over 60 percent higher. A fire at a natural gas compressor station added to the utility’s predicament and limited its ability to access gas storage. Two of the station’s three plants were down.
Despite their plants operating well, DTE Energy, which provides electricity to millions of customers in southeast Michigan, requested that customers reduce their electricity usage because its system is connected to energy grids in other states and Canada that were experiencing issues due to the weather. DTE has not been as aggressive in switching to natural gas and renewables as has Consumers Energy.
Minnesota experienced a natural gas “brownout,” as Xcel Energy requested its customers set their thermostats to 60 degrees or lower and avoid using hot water, as cold weather increased demand and taxed the equipment. About 150 customers lost natural gas service, and Xcel put them up in hotels.
On Wednesday, January 30, when the morning temperature in the Twin Cities was -24 degrees, wind energy provided only 4 percent of the electricity needed and used just 24 percent of its installed capacity in the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator’s region. Meanwhile, coal-fired power plants provided 45 percent of the system operator’s power and nuclear provided 13 percent—mostly from Minnesota’s Prairie Island and Monticello nuclear plants. Natural gas provided 26 percent of electricity demand, and the remainder was imported from Canada and other U.S. states. Thus, coal, natural gas, and nuclear provided over 80 percent of the needed electricity generation. At the same time, natural gas heated the homes of about 66 percent of Minnesotan, but there was not enough gas to combat the frigid temperatures.
This should make Minnesota lawmakers think twice about doubling the state’s renewable energy mandate to 50 percent by 2030. Clearly, intermittent, unreliable sources of energy like wind and solar would not be part of our energy system if they were not mandated by politicians, provided with federal subsidies, and thus, increasing the earnings of regulated utilities that profit off of the construction of new wind and solar farms. And, pursuing a grid powered entirely by solar, wind, and natural gas would require more natural gas pipeline capacity, which is currently being opposed by activist factions and by certain state governments.
In 2016, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo blocked a 124-mile pipeline to deliver natural gas from Pennsylvania to New York and New England. The pipeline would have allowed millions of Americans to convert to natural gas from heating oil, which would save an upstate New Yorker about $1,000 a year. Prior to that, Mr. Cuomo banned hydraulic fracturing in the state. New York has access to the Marcellus Shale gas deposit that is supplying large amounts of natural gas today by using hydraulic fracturing mainly in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Those natural gas supplies in New York are located in some of the poorest counties in the state where investment, jobs, and income would be welcomed.
Due to Mr. Cuomo’s natural gas blockade, power plants must switch from natural gas to oil during cold spells when demand for natural gas is high and there is inadequate pipeline capacity to supply it. Further, New England must import liquefied natural gas from Trinidad and Tobago, which is far more expensive than shipping domestic gas by pipeline from Pennsylvania or from New York’s natural gas deposits.
Mr. Cuomo’s folly has caused Consolidated Edison to announce a moratorium on natural gas hook-ups in New York City’s Westchester suburb beginning March 15. Developers are warning that they will have to put projects on hold until natural gas pipeline constraints are eased. National Grid has been issuing similar warnings if the company’s plans for a $1 billion gas pipeline do not receive a water quality permit from the state by May 15. If completed, the project would provide an additional 14 percent of natural gas capacity to the region.
The polar vortex has shown Americans the vulnerability that the U.S. electric and natural gas systems have to cold weather. Luckily, it was relatively brief. However, the United States is an energy superpower with vast supplies of energy available to meet our needs. Aside from disruptions because of accidents or equipment breakdowns, there is no reason Americans should be in a position of worrying about the availability of affordable energy.
Relying on wind and solar energy is dangerous if there is not enough reliable power from coal, natural gas, and nuclear to back up these intermittent sources. While natural gas is inexpensive today and more than plentiful, pipeline constraints are limiting its ability to allow Americans to live comfortably during cold weather, forcing them to turn down thermostats and to leave their homes during equipment disruptions. States that have renewable portfolio standards should reevaluate how far they want to push the renewable generation share because future cold spells are likely to occur and back-up power is essential.
The problems with our energy system are not based upon lack of supply; rather, they are brought about by political decisions that imperil our energy security. Parts of the nation dodged a bullet during the recent polar vortex mainly due to the short period of the frigid weather.