What Electric Utilities Need to Know About Natural Gas Infrastructure

There are thousands of compressor stations across the country and this is not mentioned to exaggerate local reliability concerns. Many existing pipelines have work arounds with gas re-routing. But not all pipeline segments serving power plants currently have secondary pipelines. When a new NGCC plant replaces a coal plant, the utility should know about work arounds for the gas plant—and with any other power plants in the same vicinity if a key compressor station or gas storage facility is out of service for a day, week, or month. For those pipelines serving large industrial customers and electric utilities, the utility needs a capacity assessment to know it can meet summer and winter peak demand HOURS given any typical compressor station or storage location outages.

Power generators are required to disclose scheduled power plant maintenance for reliability reasons to their planning authority. Perhaps a similar requirement is needed between gas providers and the power sector. It will help utilities to know if the infrastructure has adequate “belts and suspenders” to work around gas infrastructure down time.

Understanding gas infrastructure is as important as understanding environmental compliance for coal generation.

Infrastructure readiness issues during the transition convince me some fuel diversity with coal, gas, renewables, hydro, and some nuclear generation is wise. Diversity is good whether it is in investments, nutrition, or energy. Saying energy diversity or “all of the above” often sounds trite, but electric reliability demands diversification. Every state might not have or need adequate water for nuclear power. Not every state needs all existing baseload to be coal because of an abundance of natural gas and the commensurate mature infrastructure. Not every state has geology suitable for subsurface gas storage and that possible bottleneck nags at me. Perhaps a handful of states really can reliably sustain a 50% intermittent renewable combined with natural gas and hydro. One day we may see even better breakthroughs in battery storage.  During this transition utility managers need to weigh gas infrastructure and operational issues. Natural gas is terrific but it’s not exactly the same as having a three-month coal supply onsite.

Despite the many benefits of firm (uninterruptible) gas contracts, they cannot eliminate all the localized issues with infrastructure repair downtime. Until most states look like Texas with robust gas infrastructure, we should not dismiss the infrastructure readiness questions. Natural gas storage remains the fulcrum for electric utilities.

Theresa Pugh is a consultant to electric utilities and manufacturers on EPA regulations and energy policy (www.theresapughconsulting.com). She worked for the utility sector for 13 years.


[1] Drew R. Michanowicz et al, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Environmental Research Letters, May 24, 2017 https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/air-pollution/

[2] Blowdowns are evacuations conducted for safety reasons. In some circumstances, the methane can be re-routed and not evacuated from the pipeline/compressor station. Methane blowdowns are usually not scheduled in advance and conducted for public safety reasons. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtSH5V1YQvQ