East Coast freeze triggers voluntary CA electricity cutback

It’s not just water Californians are being asked to conserve.

Yesterday, California’s Independent System Operator, which regulates the state’s electricity grid, called for a rare voluntary cutback in electricity use from 1 p.m. until 10 p.m.  

The unusual reason: The East Coast of the United States is demanding more natural gas than expected for heating and extra power backup.

The only major interstate natural gas pipelines stretching into California from the East are in Southern California.  Thus, we are mainly talking about a curtailment of natural gas plants in Southern California. However, the grid alert was called statewide to free up gas from the rest of California to make up for the gas lost by Southern California.

The spot price for natural gas at the Southern California Border Hub shot up from about $5.00 per MMBtu to more than $20.00, according to the website www.naturalgasintel.com. According to Energy Vortex, “A BTU is the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of a pint of water (which weighs exactly 16 ounces) by one degree Fahrenheit.” An MMBtu is a million BTUs, the standard used for natural gas.

Flex alerts

Californians are accustomed to what are called Flex Alerts to conserve power and natural gas usage during times when the electric grid is congested or there has been a power outage in the system.  Typically, large industries are called upon first to scale back power usage and residential customers are not aware of most Flex Alerts.

During the infamous 2001 California Energy Crisis, which included rolling blackouts, residential customers statewide also were called on to cut back usage at peak hours to lessen the grid congestion crisis.  

Cause of lack of natural gas: “Freeze offs” 

Part of the reason cited for the lack of an adequate natural gas supply in the Central and Eastern portions of the U.S. is “freeze offs” that affected billions of cubic feet of natural gas production in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the Appalachian region during January.

Jonathan Gould, senior oil and gas analyst for Genscape, told NaturalGasIntel.com yesterday:

“I don’t know that the region ever really saw [such low] temperatures when that first polar vortex hit. Before that, you had some cold temperatures, but you had nothing that really impacted production to this extent. Since then we’ve seen production has been down and that as each additional cold front comes through, production comes off a bit, then slowly starts to ramp back up.

“This weather has been so severe. I can’t recall that we’ve ever seen anything this significant in the Marcellus.

“It can literally take a number of months before that production can get right back up to that normal level, excluding any kind of overriding trend in the area,” Gould said. “It depends on a number of factors — when does the cold front hit; are there sustained cold fronts; are the road conditions good enough to get a crew to the wellhead — that all impacts the timeliness of the return.”

Another reason for the problem was that the expansion of “green power” across the United States paradoxically has increased the demand for natural gas during the hours when green power is not available. Solar power is only available from 8 a.m. to about 5 p.m. daily during the winter.  Wind power typically blows at night but is highly erratic from hour to hour. Natural gas fills in the gaps.

Underground gas storage prevents price spikes

The Southern California Natural Gas Company’s California Energy Hub, located on the California-Arizona border, is the major interchange for natural gas pipeline shipments in and out of California. California natural gas prices are typically lower than those at the Henry Hub in Louisiana because of greater demand for gas in Eastern markets.

The Henry Hub sets the benchmark price for natural gas in the U.S. As of Feb. 5, the spot price of natural gas at the Henry Hub was up to $6.22 per MMBtu from $4.70 January.

The Southern California Gas Company has four underground natural gas storage facilities located at Aliso Canyon, Honor Rancho, Goleta and Playa Del Rey. The total capacity is 136 billion cubic feet of gas.  Storage protects against gas-supply imbalances, curtailments and arbitrage (i.e., price flipping).  Storage also eliminates the hassle factor of having to back up natural gas with other fuel supplies in the event of curtailment. 

Eastern U.S. weather forecast cold; California warming 

According to NaturalGasIntel.com, the Northeast, North Central and lower Mississippi are expected to experience unusually cold temperatures for the next three months. By contrast, the Southeast and Southwest will see a modest warm-up per the forecasts at Weather Services International.

About six weeks ago, weather forecasters were anticipating somewhat warmer temperatures than normal in the East. But what are called “multiple polar vortices” have brought a cold snap to a large area of the Eastern U.S.

While California has been experiencing unusually warm weather and a lack of rainfall, the North Central U.S. is expected to have cold weather through February. Southern California temperatures are expected to stay above normal despite yesterday’s modest rainfall in Southern California.

Appeals court rejects natural gas plant on same day as flex alert 

So natural gas is coming to the rescue of the power and natural gas grids, while renewable energy cannot be counted on. California has plans to expand the use of stop-and-go renewable power in California to 33 percent by 2030.

Southern California also has had to shift more to reliance on natural gas powered plants after last year’s decision to decommission the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.  San Onofre produced enough power for 1.4 million people.

Now, by tapping Southern California natural gas supplies for other parts of the U.S., California is more dependent on customers cutting back their electricity and natural gas usage to meet local power demands.

Ironically, the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled on Feb. 6 to reject a proposed 586-megawatt natural gas power plant in Oakley. Presiding Justice Barbara Jones ruled, “We do not find substantial evidence to support [the Public Utility Commission’s] finding that the Oakley project is needed to meet specific, unique reliability risk.”

The length and severity of the East Coast cold snap could determine the validity of that assessment.

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