California, Arizona, Michigan, and Massachusetts are saying “no” to new natural gas generating plants, and California even wants to get rid of some of its older gas plants. Recently, the California Public Utilities Commission directed Pacific Gas and Electric, the state’s largest electric utility, to solicit bids for renewable energy and storage projects to replace three natural gas plants. In Arizona, regulators voted for a nine-month pause on any new large gas-fired power plants and told the state’s largest investor-owned utilities that their future plans relied too heavily on natural gas and should include more wind and solar, electricity storage, and energy efficiency. In Michigan, CMS Energy Corp. had to back off from plans to expand a gas-fired plant in Dearborn due to environmentalists claiming that it would worsen air quality.
Over half of U.S. states have mandates (renewable portfolio standards) that require a certain percentage of electricity be generated by renewable technologies by specified years. To meet the mandates, generating companies must build more renewable energy technologies, mostly solar and wind technologies that are intermittent and unreliable. To ensure reliability, generating companies have built efficient, low-cost natural gas combined cycle plants to back-up the intermittent renewable plants. As a result, natural gas has increased its share of electric utility generation over the past decade from 22 percent to 32 percent, overtaking coal as the major source of U.S. electricity generation.
But despite the only modest increase in solar and wind generation over the last decade (from one percent to eight percent of generation), some state regulators and environmental groups are arguing that new natural gas plants are not needed and that renewable energy should replace some existing gas plants.
Natural Gas Plants Not a Preferred Resource in California
California must get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030. Currently, 30 percent of California’s power comes from renewables. Building more gas-fired plants will not not get California to its goal for renewable energy. And, the state has even determined it must get rid of existing gas plants that are needed for reliability.
As mentioned earlier, California is considering renewable and energy storage alternatives to three gas plants (the Metcalf Energy Center, Feather River Energy Center, and Yuba City Energy Center) on the Pacific Gas and Electric system that are needed for reliability. A proposed gas plant (Puente Gas Plant) on Southern California Edison’s system is also in trouble. The California Independent System Operator agreed to examine alternatives to the plant last summer after pressure from lawmakers to use preferred resources. And, recently, it has been announced that NRG Energy plans to shutter three gas plants in the state—the Etiwanda, Ormond Beach, and Ellwood plants.
Recently, developers of a proposed 255-megawatt gas plant (Mission Rock Energy Center) asked California regulators to suspend the gas plant’s application, citing changes to state policies and programs relating to grid reliability, particularly local reliability. Calpine planned to address local reliability needs with the Mission Rock Energy Center using its black start capabilities and peaking capacity coupled with battery storage. However, the gas plant is not a preferred resource with state regulators.
In Michigan, utilities must get 15 percent of their electricity from renewable energy by 2021. As mentioned earlier, CMS Energy Corp. had plans to expand a gas-fired plant in Dearborn, but withdrew their plans when residents and environmentalists said little had been done to assess the viability of cleaner options. Another gas project currently being considered expects a decision by late April. Regulators are considering a proposal by DTE Energy Co. to build a 1.1-gigawatt gas plant about 50 miles northeast of Detroit. Solar advocates oppose it, contending that solar, other renewables, and energy-efficient efforts could be used at lower cost.
In Massachusetts, utilities must get 40 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2030 and need additional renewable projects to meet that mandate. However, a natural gas plant is currently being built in the state which can be ramped up or down to accommodate intermittent renewables. NRG Energy is building a new gas plant that can be at full power in 10 minutes—a fast start time that will help firm up the power grid when intermittent renewable resources are not producing electricity.
New Gas Plants in Demand in Gas-Friendly States
In Pennsylvania and Ohio, where natural gas is being produced from the Marcellus Shale formation, companies are building gas-fired power plants with a combined capacity of 8.6 gigawatts. The power is for the PJM (Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland) Interconnection LLC—a power grid that serves some or all of 13 states, including Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. New capacity is needed to mainly replace retirements. Almost 9.3 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity have been retired in the past three years on the PJM grid, being replaced by 8.7 gigawatts of gas-fired capacity in that period. An additional 12.5 gigawatts of gas-fired generation are currently under construction and are expected to come online through 2020. In addition to the 8.6 gigawatts of natural-gas electricity already under construction in Pennsylvania and Ohio, companies have proposed an additional 8.2 gigawatts in those states plus West Virginia.
In Louisiana, the New Orleans City Council approved a plan by an Entergy Corp. subsidiary to build a gas-fired plant in eastern New Orleans. Louisiana ranks fourth in total natural gas production among the states.
Coal-fired power plants were first and now natural gas-fired power plants are getting the ax, particularly in states with high mandates for renewable energy. California, in particular, is saying “no” to new gas-fired plants and even considering closing existing gas plants despite their ability to supply reliable power at low cost and back-up intermittent wind and solar plants.