The Valuable Role of Natural Gas in Keeping the Lights On

New York Times Dot Earth Blog
November 5, 2012

How Natural Gas Kept Some Spots Bright and Warm as Sandy Blasted New York City
Andrew C. Revkin

My former colleague at Pace University, Andrew Revkin of New York Times Dot Earth fame, wrote an excellent post praising the role of natural gas in keeping the lights on in some parts of New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The well-kept secret, and one that deserves more attention, is the use of natural gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) facilities to generate electricity and heat. New York University, for example, was able to go into “island mode,” and thereby maintain essential services on its Washington Square campus as the electric grid around it went dark. NYU had the foresight to install a grid of its own – referred to as a “micro grid” – which allows it to rely on natural gas-fired cogeneration facilities to provide a large portion of its electricity supply. More important, the heat that is produced in generating electricity, which is simply released into the atmosphere in typical large electric generating plants, is captured and used to heat and cool NYU’s buildings. Hence, the name combined heat and power, or recycled energy.

Two other former colleagues from my days at Pace Law School, Tom Bourgeois (Deputy Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center) and Bill Pentland (a frequent contributor to make the case for CHP in Revkin’s blog post. According to Pentland,

Today’s electric grid was not designed to survive strong winds, storm surges, falling trees and flying debris and seems ludicrously inadequate for the demands of America’s increasingly digital and connected economy. The costs of hardening the electric grid will be vast. One widely cited study by the Brattle Group estimated that the electric utility industry will need to invest a $1.5 trillion to $2.0 trillion in infrastructure upgrades by 2030.

Despite spending epic sums of money on the so-called “smart grid,” the electric power grid seems as stupid as it was before spending billions in federal stimulus dollars.

Why throw good money after bad if we have a compelling alternative? And make no mistake about it, we have a compelling alternative to the conventional electric grid. It is commonly called the North American natural gas infrastructure.

Bourgeois, for his part, is a lifelong CHP advocate, and co-directs the DOE-funded Northeast Clean Energy Application Center, which is charged with promoting CHP and district energy throughout the Northeast. Here is the vision of the future electricity system articulated by Bourgeois:

We need a new vision of the electric generation, transmission and distribution system rather than one that moves electricity generated at remote locations, arriving at the point of end use . . . with a loss of 67 percent of otherwise valuable thermal energy. We need some pilots of operating micro-grids and district systems with combined heat and power that ought to represent the energy system of the future. Go beyond thinking of individual building efficiency to zero-energy blocks or neighborhoods. A vision of optimally creating a suite of resources, efficiency, photovoltaics, clean distributed generation, demand response, storage, all managed in synch with the larger transmission and distribution system.

The 67 percent figure to which Bourgeois refers is the energy efficiency of a typical large, central electric generating station, which reflects the discharge of the “waste” heat into the atmosphere instead of capturing it and using it to heat and cool buildings, as CHP systems do, thereby allowing them to achieve efficiencies that reduce the loss to less than 30 percent.

One can hardly disagree with Revkin’s conclusion: “[G]iven the role natural gas played in keeping the lights on in otherwise darkened parts of the city after this storm, it’s clear that this resource can play an important part in building a robust, resilient and flexible electricity and energy grid for the city and region.” This solution has even greater relevance in West Virginia, where we have an interest in stimulating demand for natural gas as a means of stabilizing natural gas prices, which in turn will allow the Marcellus shale resource to be tapped for the benefit of West Virginians. Policymakers in West Virginia should be pursuing measures that encourage the development of CHP facilities in the State. Large industrial facilities, for example, are prime targets for CHP installations. In addition to consuming large quantities of natural gas – which helps the “demand” side of the natural gas market in this State – the electricity produced by CHP facilities can provide some insulation from the inevitable electricity price increases that electric ratepayers in the State will continue to pay for the foreseeable future as a consequence of previous decisions by investor-owned utilities (AEP and First Energy) to rely almost exclusively on coal for electricity generation. We need our manufacturing and heavy industry to be competitive, and natural gas-fired CHP can play a huge role in that. And this is all in addition to the undisputed reliability and efficiency benefits of CHP noted by Messrs. Revkin, Bourgeois and Pentland.