Blowing Smoke about Burning Stuff for Grid Reliability

Claims that only thermal energy resources can ensure grid reliability don’t pass the laugh test.

The challenge of decarbonizing the electricity grid while ensuring its reliability is acute in Pennsylvania.

So is the level of misdirection in the policy debate.

The Commonwealth is the nation’s third-largest electricity producer, and exports more of it than any other state. Currently, 59% of its electricity generation is fueled by natural gas, which has almost entirely displaced coal in the state’s energy mix. Only about 4% of in-state generation comes from renewable energy.

The natural gas industry and its advocates would like to keep it that way. They’ve met proposals to grow zero-carbon energy with exaggerated concerns about grid reliability—and claim that only burning more stuff can fix it.

Really? Let’s first take a quick look at some background.

PJM expects electricity demand to grow 2.3% per year over the next ten years. Data centers are seen as major drivers of that increase, but there are rapid advances in chip design that will reduce energy consumption. And there’s much more juice to be squeezed out of energy efficiency across the economy. Panic about growing demand is premature.

On the supply side, as much as 30% of the current “thermal resource” capacity in PJM “could” retire by 2030. Time will tell. PJM’s interconnection queue—proposed new generation projects—stands at 1.6 times the installed capacity of the region’s power plant fleet. And 97% of that queue is comprised of renewables and storage. Typically, less than 15% of those projects will actually get built, and it will take several years for those that do to come online. But the composition of the queue shows where the market is headed.

Now, to the assertion that burning more stuff is the only way to ensure reliability.

Put aside for a moment the fact that, according to PJM, solar plus battery plants can have higher reliability values than gas plants. The reality is that the dominance of natural gas in Pennsylvania’s power sector actually presents serious risks to reliability.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has found that natural gas-fired power plants are “particularly susceptible” to failure during extreme weather events—which are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate disruption.

UCS looked at five winter storms over the past decade that threatened grid reliability and found that, in each case, gas plant failures were the primary cause of energy system disruptions. More recently, gas power plants comprised over half the forced outages in PJM during Winter Storm Gerri in January, 2024.

UCS also found that high summer temperatures and droughts can reduce the output of gas plants or cause them to shut down. They recommend that state regulators not approve any new gas plants “except in the extremely limited cases when there are no viable clean energy solutions for grid reliability,” and that no new gas plants should be approved in environmental justice communities.

Similarly, this policy brief says that state regulators should be skeptical of building new gas-fired power plants and should instead prioritize energy efficiency and clean energy with storage. Indeed, a new study finds that solar and wind availability is often elevated during weather extremes, enabling those resources to meet the higher energy demands during those events and actually improve reliability.

Finally, this essential Kleinman Center white paper argues that the biggest threat to grid reliability isn’t the rise of renewables but the way the grid is governed—by multiple agencies and entities, with little coordination, and less public oversight. It results in policies that favor building new fossil fuel resources or financially propping up existing ones. It impedes clean energy development, sound transmission planning, and deployment of grid-enhancing technologies, reconductoring, and other advanced grid solutions.

Gaslighting about gas harms Pennsylvania and the planet. Increasing zero-carbon energy requirements and demanding grid governance reforms are the energy and reliability policies Pennsylvania urgently needs.

John Quigley

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center
John Quigley is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and previously served on the Center’s Advisory Board. He served as Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection and of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.