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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.


Anonymous said…
While researching a housing development for a potential home in a Connecticut town, I came across several natural gas pipelines that intersected nearby. Calls to the public utilities commission provided the age (as old as 63 years), size (up to 30 inches diameter), and design pressure. Together these account for about half of the natural gas supplies to New England. In turn, natural gas now supplies over 60% of New England's electrical supply, and growing with the upcoming permanent shutdown of Pilgrim. Talk about over-dependency on and vulnerability of a single fuel source!

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