The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a new issue brief today that examines the performance of fossil gas power plants, finding they can be unreliable, especially during extreme weather events, which are growing increasingly frequent and intense as a result of climate impacts largely attributed to heat-trapping emissions.
“The energy system’s overreliance on gas is problematic for many reasons,” said Senior Energy Analyst Mark Specht, the co-author of the issue brief and Western States energy manager at UCS. “The recent failures of gas plants under extreme weather conditions have led to rolling blackouts, which have caused serious safety and health consequences for communities left without power during critical times of need. In looking closely at recent extreme winter weather events, our analysis found that gas plants were disproportionately vulnerable to failure.”
The issue brief, “Gas Malfunction: Calling Into Question the Reliability of Gas Power Plants,” looks at the physical impacts to gas plants under extreme weather conditions in both winter and summer, including direct impacts on plant equipment along with fuel supply issues. The analysis also highlights how programs designed to ensure enough electricity supply to meet consumer demand have been significantly overvaluing the reliability contributions of gas power plants.
The impact of severe winter weather on the United States’ energy system has been an area of growing concern for regulators, grid operators, and communities in most regions of the country. Gas plant failures accounted for 63% of the generating capacity knocked offline during Winter Storm Elliott, which hit large parts of the Central and Eastern United States in 2022. Similarly, 56% of the generating capacity knocked offline came from gas plants during Winter Storm Uri. When the storm struck Texas in 2021, it left more than 14 million people without access to safe drinking water, and some households were without electricity in freezing temperatures for as long as four days. Ultimately, 246 people in the state died as a result of the storm.
“As the planet continues to warm, extreme weather events have become more frequent and intense, putting the U.S. power grid and broader energy system under significant pressure,” said Paul Arbaje, an energy analyst at UCS and an issue brief co-author. “The science demands we cease doubling down on fossil fuels. Not only is this infrastructure, especially gas plants, not up to the task of supplying power when it’s needed most, but it continues the vicious cycle of releasing heat-trapping emissions that exacerbate climate change impacts and in turn strain the electric grid.”
Research has demonstrated that power outages disproportionately harm low-income communities, communities of color, and people living with disabilities. Adding more gas to the energy mix would leave these communities vulnerable to power outages during extreme weather events. In places like the Tennessee Valley, local residents are raising their voices and calling for more transparency around the process for approving new power plant projects. The UCS issue brief also recommends avoiding new gas plants in environmental justice communities altogether due to the traditional air pollutants the plants emit.
“When decision makers prolong unreliable and dirty energy sources like gas, communities bear the brunt of public health and economic consequences,” said Yvonne Cappel-Vickery, a clean energy grid organizer at the Alliance for Affordable Energy in Louisiana and a peer-reviewer of the UCS issue brief. “We can’t afford to continue letting private and fossil fuel interests drive decisions about the future of our energy system. Power grid planning must center community needs, starting with more transparency and avenues for public participation.”
Solving this problem, the experts conclude, requires regulators and utilities to prioritize clean alternatives, including solutions on both the energy supply-side and demand-side of the system. The issue brief recommends investing in renewables, energy storage, and electricity transmission in addition to technologies such as demand flexibility and energy efficiency. Beyond improving grid reliability, clean energy solutions can also mitigate the release of heat-trapping emissions from the extraction, leakage, and combustion of gas and can help improve air and water quality.
A blog series by UCS experts on the increasing unreliability of fossil gas can be found here.