Lesson from the winter storm: More natural gas is needed
Wed, March 03, 2021
The winter storm that rocked Texas last week was a wake-up call for millions of Texans left without power, heat, water, and many of life’s essentials for days. Previous winter storms did not bring the sustained cold temperatures that froze much of our energy infrastructure, the defining characteristic that made this storm so devastating.
Unfortunately, these recent events, still fresh in the memories of so many Texans, have already turned into a political fight. But when you stop the spin and analyze the data, one thing is clear: ensuring we have a reliable supply of natural gas is not just a policy preference; it can be a matter of life and death.
As the snow, ice, and freezing temperatures moved across Texas, natural gas power generation sharply rose to meet the needs of millions of Texans.
On Feb. 7, Austin’s high temperature was 70 degrees with a low of 40 degrees, and natural gas power generation dipped below 7,000 megawatt-hours, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). One week later, as Austin’s low temperature approached single digits, energy demand rose dramatically and natural gas generation spiked to nearly 44,000 megawatt hours – a more than 500 percent increase from a week earlier.
The story in Austin was the same statewide: natural gas was rising to meet demand until the extreme cold overcame our state infrastructure’s ability to keep operating. In fact, natural gas met 136 percent of the increase in demand, far more than any other energy source. So while a handful of pundits are trying to score political points by pointing fingers at natural gas for “failing,” the data tell a completely different story.
Meanwhile, more than one-third of all Texans rely on natural gas as their primary source of home heating. While EIA data reflect the surge in natural gas for electricity, they do not capture the increased demand from those cranking the heat to stay warm with their gas-powered furnaces. When the power went out and gas furnace electric starters could no longer keep home heating systems running, many Texans stayed safe and warm by huddling near gas fireplaces and other appliances they could light themselves.
If those examples don’t convince the “electrify everything” crowd that they’re on the wrong track, perhaps a pocketbook example will.
In 2019, U.S. residential homes used about 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Replacing that amount of natural gas with electricity would cost American families an additional $113.6 billion annually in 2019 dollars, according to EIA data and relying on price averages from that year. To put that in perspective, a home that costs $100 to heat in a winter month with natural gas would cost $339 to heat with electricity.
What these data suggest is the need for more – not less – natural gas supply to meet growing, and at times unexpected, demand. Expanding our pipeline infrastructure can help create the additional resilience we need to ensure we are better prepared for a future extreme weather event.
Critics of natural gas and those who promote natural gas bans willfully ignore the facts that it is providing affordable electricity and heat to millions of Americans; our domestic supplies ensure we are energy secure for generations; and it is helping to lower U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Without question, changes must be made to ensure surges in demand and frozen infrastructure can no longer create a perfect storm that imperils the great people of our state. But policies that seek to curb the production of natural gas or make it more difficult to build essential infrastructure are sure to put us back in danger when the next storm comes.
Generations of Texans before us settled in this land, tackling the challenges that come with living in the beautifully unique environment that comprises the Lone Star State. To ensure we preserve it for future generations, we must also embrace the opportunities that come with living here, and that includes using its bountiful resources – like natural gas – to keep us healthy and safe.