Regulatory planners, industry officials and others looking to guard against blackouts must focus more of their attention on the nation’s natural gas delivery systems and its natural gas-fired plants.

That’s among the key take-away findings from a new report by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the quasi-governmental organization that oversees power reliability in the United States.  The report, issued this month, also identifies several areas of Texas in which the power grid could be undermined under certain circumstances by the sudden loss of multiple natural gas-fired plants.

“In light of the power sector’s rising reliance on natural gas, the loss of gas facilities must be added to the list of potential extreme contingencies used to measure system reliability impacts,” said John Moura, one of NERC’s directors, in a prepared statement.

The electric power sector is changing dramatically: increasing numbers of natural gas-fired plants are pumping out more power even while a growing number of coal and nuclear plants are retiring or are expected to retire. These charges are largely driven by lower natural gas prices but also technological advancements that have made natural gas-fired plants more competitive.

As a consequence, a major disruption in natural gas delivery or the sudden shutdown of multiple natural gas-fired plants can destabilize power grids. Texas experienced such instability during a major cold front in 2011 when millions of Texans lost power after freezing parts and a lack of fuel caused the shutdown of  several gas-fired plants.

NERC, in its report, found that potential risks for natural gas-related grid instability vary widely depending on geographical location and the density of infrastructure. It also said that risk mitigation strategies are available.

For its report, NERC mapped the location of major gas storage facilities that are coupled with electric generation, mapped the location of clusters of natural gas-fired electricity plants and also surveyed other expert studies.

It identified four areas in Texas with groups of generation facilities that could experience stability problems if two gigawatts or more of natural gas-fired generation were to be disrupted.

The assessment included several recommendations:

  • Regulators should address cyber and physical security needs related to fuel supply disruptions.
  • The Department of Energy should consider collecting data to quantify dual fuel storage and seasonal on-site inventory.
  • Wholesale electric markets should continue to incentivize performance of natural gas generation.
  • The natural gas and electricity industries should continue to strengthen their operational coordination.

The new report is entitled “Special Assessment: Potential Bulk Power System Impacts Due to Severe Disruptions on the Natural Gas System.” You can find it here.

— R.A. Dyer