As another Arctic blast hits the Northeast and temperatures plunge, more energy is needed to keep New Yorkers warm.
Where is that energy coming from?
A lot of it comes from natural gas, but there’s a big supply problem. Because of the state’s ban on fracking and its refusal to allow new and upgraded natural gas infrastructure, not enough gas can get to power plants to generate the electricity needed to keep the lights and heat on in everyone’s houses during times of extreme demand.
What gas is available gets bid up to eye-wateringly high prices. It’s hard to speak meaningfully of an average price for natural gas because the market is volatile, but the 2022 high price in Pennsylvania was $12.95 per million British thermal units (mmbtu). According to one energy industry source, during last Christmas’s cold snap, the price in New York hit $100 per mmbtu.
That translated into an electricity price of nearly 90 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to the average New York price of 19 cents.
That assumes the power plant can even get the gas it needs to operate. With such severe gas shortages, some natural gas-fired plants had to shut down for lack of fuel. What gets burned to take their place – fuel oil – is not only expensive, but also much dirtier and producing more carbon dioxide than natural gas.
So, ironically, because New York has limited the supply of the much cleaner burning natural gas in order to prevent pollution and CO2, the power industry has no choice at times but to spew more pollution into disadvantaged communities and add more carbon to the atmosphere.
The hope is that renewables will one day suffice to supply the electricity we need to heat our homes on a day like this. That hope is irresponsible, because wind and solar aren’t reliable and there is no available “clean” backup power source.
Below is a graph from the New York Independent System Operator’s (NYISO) real-time dashboard, showing fuel use on February 2 into the early hours of February 3. On what was otherwise a reasonably good day for wind power (the light green line), we can see it declining in the early hours of February 3 as the cold front moved in, while the use of dual fuel generators (the top line), which can burn fuel oil, dramatically increased. Building more wind turbines has limited effect – as the wind drops across the state, all the turbines decrease in output.
NYISO has repeatedly warned – and the Climate Action Council’s Scoping Plan admits – that wind and solar will not be sufficient. New York will need between 25 and 45 gigawatts of dispatchable power – power that unlike wind and sun, but like natural gas, fuel oil, and hydro, can be turned on and off at will.
To comply with the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), these sources are supposed to be emissions free, leading NYISO to coin the ugly acronym DEFRs – dispatchable emissions-free resources. But they coined that term because they can’t identify any source that meets that standard and is currently available at utility scale and a commercially competitive price.
This means that for the foreseeable future, fossil fuels will be the only proven source of dispatchable backup to keep the heat and lights on during weather that is killingly cold. Since New York no longer has any coal plants, that can be oil – which is more polluting and has higher carbon content – or natural gas.
The CLCPA has a clear goal of eliminating all greenhouse gas emitting power production by 2040, which would mean shutting down all natural gas-fired power plants. But it also provides a path for keeping open those plants that are necessary to ensure a reliable electrical supply. That path, however, faces considerable political opposition.
New York will soon be forced to make a choice: plunging forward with shutting down natural gas-fired power plants, risking rolling blackouts during extreme cold, or moving forward more slowly on its emissions goals, but keeping the heat on. There is no third way.