Skip to main content

What the Colonial Pipeline Teaches Us About Fuel Diversity

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Six southern governors have declared states of emergency in the last few days, because a gasoline pipeline sprung a leak near Birmingham, Alabama. The pipeline, which runs from East Texas to New Jersey, normally carries 50 million gallons a day, after the leak was discovered on September 9, some gas stations have run dry and others have long lines. Gas prices have surged, and it’s not clear when the pipeline will re-open.

So what is the lesson for those six states (Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Virginia) and the rest of us?

It’s that hand-to-mouth energy systems will intermittently face disruption.

Pipeline ruptures are not unusual. They can be caused by corrosion, or because floods washed away the soil under them, or because something was wrong with the steel before it was installed. Sometimes the pipe was hit by excavation equipment.

But they don’t even have to break to cause problems; they simply have to face bad weather. In the winter of 2012-2013 in New England, a polar vortex triggered a sharp demand in natural gas for heating, but there was no way to deliver more. The shortage pushed natural gas prices up sharply; electricity followed, running at four to five times its normal cost for a sustained period.

Florida has suffered from natural gas shortages after hurricanes disrupted production from offshore platforms. California faced an electricity crunch for all of this summer because a gas storage field called Aliso Canyon leaked and had to be emptied.

The pipeline with a problem this time is for refined oil, not natural gas, and little oil is used for electricity production. But this event highlights vulnerabilities shared by all pipelines.

It might be time to think about pipelines and supply diversity.
And it’s not just pipeline fuels like gasoline and natural gas that can face problems. Coal delivery is generally reliable – often you can look out the window at a coal plant and see the next month of fuel in piles on the ground – but in January, 2014, during another cold snap, coal piles froze, and so did some equipment. PJM, the energy market that covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland and parts of ten other states, stretching west to Chicago, reported that nearly 14,000 megawatts of coal capacity was disabled, enough to run hundreds of thousands of houses and businesses. In Texas in February, 2011, a cold snap knocked out 50 power plants, some coal and some natural gas, and produced 8 hours of rolling blackouts, in which grid operators played eeny-meeny-miney-moe with customers, turning them off in shifts.

Hydroelectric plants don’t often break down, but they do cut production when they’ve run out of water. In 2015, California got less than 7 percent of its electricity from hydropower, down from an average of 18 percent between 1983 and 2013. Wind droughts are not so obvious to the public, but they happen too.

Nuclear power, in contrast, is the energy equivalent of extra canned food on a basement shelf. Nuclear plants stop to refuel only once every 18 to 24 months, and the few truckloads of uranium fuel assemblies needed for a refueling typically arrive weeks or months before they are used. Nuclear plants have been known to shut down in advance of oncoming hurricanes, but in such cases, they are usually ready to resume production long before the transmission and distribution systems have been rebuilt.

We wouldn’t want a 100 percent nuclear system any more than we’d want a diet of only canned food. But the best electric system is a diverse one, in which we have hedged our bets with many different sources. One of the benefits that nuclear power brings to the system is that neither snow nor rain to heat nor gloom of night will stop it from churning out megawatt-hours when they are needed the most.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Design Team Pictures the Future of Nuclear Energy

For more than 100 years, the shape and location of human settlements has been defined in large part by energy and water. Cities grew up near natural resources like hydropower, and near water for agricultural, industrial and household use.

So what would the world look like with a new generation of small nuclear reactors that could provide abundant, clean energy for electricity, water pumping and desalination and industrial processes?

Hard to say with precision, but Third Way, the non-partisan think tank, asked the design team at the Washington, D.C. office of Gensler & Associates, an architecture and interior design firm that specializes in sustainable projects like a complex that houses the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. The talented designers saw a blooming desert and a cozy arctic village, an old urban mill re-purposed as an energy producer, a data center that integrates solar panels on its sprawling flat roofs, a naval base and a humming transit hub.

In the converted mill, high temperat…

Seeing the Light on Nuclear Energy

If you think that there is plenty of electricity, that the air is clean enough and that nuclear power is a just one among many options for meeting human needs, then you are probably over-focused on the United States or Western Europe. Even then, you’d be wrong.

That’s the idea at the heart of a new book, “Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century,” by Scott L. Montgomery, a geoscientist and energy expert, and Thomas Graham Jr., a retired ambassador and arms control expert.


Billions of people live in energy poverty, they write, and even those who don’t, those who live in places where there is always an electric outlet or a light switch handy, we need to unmake the last 200 years of energy history, and move to non-carbon sources. Energy is integral to our lives but the authors cite a World Health Organization estimate that more than 6.5 million people die each year from air pollution.  In addition, they say, the global climate is heading for ruinous instability. E…

Sneak Peek

There's an invisible force powering and propelling our way of life.
It's all around us. You can't feel it. Smell it. Or taste it.
But it's there all the same. And if you look close enough, you can see all the amazing and wondrous things it does.
It not only powers our cities and towns.
And all the high-tech things we love.
It gives us the power to invent.
To explore.
To discover.
To create advanced technologies.
This invisible force creates jobs out of thin air.
It adds billions to our economy.
It's on even when we're not.
And stays on no matter what Mother Nature throws at it.
This invisible force takes us to the outer reaches of outer space.
And to the very depths of our oceans.
It brings us together. And it makes us better.
And most importantly, it has the power to do all this in our lifetime while barely leaving a trace.
Some people might say it's kind of unbelievable.
They wonder, what is this new power that does all these extraordinary things?