Why Do We Need Natural Gas Plants?

If renewable energy is the best thing since sliced bread, why don't we use it all the time?

Max Dunn
April 18, 2019
Smart Home

Working in the energy industry, one of the questions we most often receive is “If we’re trying to transition to clean energy, then why do we still need gas power plants?”, which is a great question.

Here's how I like to think about it:

If all goes to plan, one day, the electric grid will run entirely on clean and renewable energy.

But we know that the process to get there won’t be fast, and it won’t be easy. In order to make that leap we will need more storage, longer distance transmission lines and comprehensive demand response programs.

In the meantime? We will continue to need natural gas power plants to balance the grid.

“There is no storage on the electric grid.”

To understand why, it is first necessary to understand that unlike water and gas supplies, there is no storage on the electric grid. The instant an electron is generated, it must be used. This makes the grid sensitive and in constant need of adjustment.

Envision the electric grid like someone riding a bicycle that needs to stay at a constant speed. No matter what happens, that bike MUST keep going at the same speed. That’s easy when riding on flat ground, right? But when you hit a hill, you need to pedal harder to keep your speed up. When going downhill, you can pedal less or even coast.

‍(Wirfs-Brock, Paterson 2015)

Just like keeping the bicycle at a constant speed, balancing supply and demand on the electric grid is a difficult process.

Without constant balancing, the electric grid would become unstable. With too much demand and not enough supply, lights would dim and motors would run slower - a condition known as “brownout”. If this condition continues, circuit breakers will trip leading to a blackout.

But having too much supply and not enough demand isn’t great either. This can cause damage to electrical equipment or overheated components which can lead to fires. Before this happens, circuit breakers will usually trip, which would also cause blackouts.

Either way we end up in the dark.

So how does the grid get balanced?

This means that when you turn on a light switch, a nearby power plant will increase its output slightly to provide the power for your light. And when you turn off the light, a power plant will reduce its output by the same amount. The instantaneous matching of supply and demand is a very complicated and precise process … and pretty amazing, right?!  

Solar and wind, while beloved by all of us around the OhmConnect office, are by their very nature, unpredictable.

While we know how much total sunlight will be available each day, passing clouds still produce a lot of variability in solar panel output. In any given region, wind follows somewhat predictable patterns -- for instance, blowing more at night than during the day. But gusts and lulls make this energy source unpredictable too.

Now we get to the role of natural gas power plants. The reason we still need them is that they can be started and ramp up and down very quickly to compensate for fluctuations in renewable energy sources. And on days where there are clouds in the sky and the wind is not blowing, they can keep our lights on.

As we strive for a grid that is powered by 100% clean and renewable energy, natural gas power plants will continue to fill a vital role in balancing the grid and allowing us to keep the lights while we make the transition.

Max Dunn

Max is driven by his passion to move the world towards a clean energy future. With an engineering degree, a Sustainable MBA and startup experience, he is attacking this problem from many different angles. He is also an electric vehicle nut, riding a Zero electric motorcycle and powering his house from his electric Nissan Leaf.

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