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Shale gas boom slows progress on renewables in PJM grid territory

PHOTO BY Keith Schneider / Energy News Network

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Wind and solar generation on the nation’s largest regional electric grid lags other parts of the country.

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — In the contest between competing energy sources to produce electricity in the United States, select regions of the U.S. — especially in windy Texas and the Great Plains, and the sunny Pacific Coast — are tilting to renewable technologies.

But in cloudy and cold rural West Virginia counties surrounding this small city, and in the 12 neighboring mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states served by PJM — the nation’s largest electrical transmission grid operator — the confrontation between renewable technology and fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, is a mismatch. And it’s anticipated to stay that way for at least the next two decades, maybe longer.

Of the more than 180,000 megawatts of installed generation capacity available from PJM’s members, less than 6 percent is produced by wind or solar technology. Nationally about 15 percent of generating capacity comes from these two renewable resources.

Coal-fired power, counted on a decade ago to generate over 40 percent of the power in the PJM service area, has fallen to less than a third. Natural gas, meanwhile, which was 25 percent of generating capacity a decade ago, is nearing 40 percent. Nuclear power accounts for 19 percent. PJM executives anticipate that a decade from today solar and wind capacity will still not exceed 10 percent of generating capacity. A sizable portion of that, PJM executives say, will come from distributed rooftop solar stations.

Had it not been for passage of state renewable generating requirements in Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Michigan — states served all or in part by PJM — the level of wind and solar generation in the PJM service area would be even lower, executives say.

According to market analysts, the reason is as straightforward and visible as the thousands of natural gas wells installed in forests and fields of the triangle of rural counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania drained by the Ohio River. Most of those wells reach more than a mile into the earth to tap the gas-saturated shales of the Marcellus and Utica geologic formations.

With astonishing speed since the first wells were drilled and began producing in 2005, gas developers turned a region once piled with the rusting bones of obsolete industrial factories into one of the largest natural gas production fields in the world. The upper Ohio River region has become the site of billions of dollars of ongoing and planned construction for gas-fired electric stations, gas processing plants, big gas pipelines, and the development of a gas-liquids plastics and methanol manufacturing corridor downstream from Pittsburgh.

Keith Schneider / Energy News Network

In June 2016, the Beaver County (Pennsylvania) Times reported that Royal Dutch Shell was proceeding with a world-scale polyethylene manufacturing plant on a big bend of the Ohio River downstream from Pittsburgh. Expected to be completed and operational in the early 2020s, the $10 billion plant may be the vanguard of a new chemical manufacturing corridor along the upper Ohio prompted by the mammoth reserves of natural gas that lie below the rural counties in three states drained by the river.

Economic ramifications of the development and ecological risks — especially of the hydrofracking technology that makes it possible — are the source of considerable public disagreement across this mid-Atlantic region. There is, however, no question about the effects of gas production on electricity generation.

PJM, based in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and charged with managing an 84,000-mile transmission network across all of six eastern states and parts of seven others in the Midwest and South, is supervising an electrical transmission network fueled principally by natural gas that looks considerably different than what the grid operator anticipated a decade ago.

“It’s an inverse relationship. The potential for wind and solar generating capacity tends to be less in our footprint than in other regions,” said Mike Bryson, PJM’s vice president for operations. 

The sun does not shine as long or as bright in much of PJM’s service areas as it does in the Southwest. In the select regions where it does, like in North Carolina, 270 megawatts of solar energy is under development.

In the meantime, natural gas is abundant through much of PJM’s area. “The potential generating capacity for natural gas is high,” Bryson said. “There also is a geophysical dynamic playing into electrical generation here. A combined cycle 1,200-megawatt natural gas-fired plant takes two years to build and 40 people to run it. It’s sitting right on top of shale wells. Developers are looking for natural gas liquids and are practically giving away the gas. The cost of operations are sufficiently low they are competing with subsidized renewable generation.”

Renewable energy development in the PJM service area, which supplies power to 65 million people, is a departure from other regions of the country. Nearly 100,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity has come online across the country, a quarter of that in Texas alone, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The sun is producing 60,000 megawatts of solar capacity nationally, more than half in California and the three desert southwest states, says the Solar Energy Industries Association.

All of the utilities in the 13 states served by PJM produce almost 320,000 megawatts of total generating capacity, or almost a third of the national total. About 7 percent, 22,500 megawatts, is produced from the wind and sun, according to the EIA and renewable trade industry associations.

Power producers that supply the PJM grid generate about 10,700 megawatts of that total renewable capacity, PJM executives say.

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