Just over a year ago, on April 29, 2016, the ground shook in Westmoreland County, Pa., a short drive south of Pittsburgh. The cause: A 30-inch natural gas pipeline had exploded – the result of a weld seam that had corroded over time, investigators said. While such accidents are relatively rare on the nation’s pipeline network, the outcome can be significant.
The impact spread far beyond western Pennsylvania. The affected pipeline – one of the largest in the U.S. – begins on the Gulf Coast, passes through the booming Marcellus and Utica shale regions, and into New Jersey, where it connects with other lines that extend to New York and New England. This segment of pipeline transports more than a billion cubic feet of gas a day.
Operators immediately shut down a 130-mile segment of the pipeline – a significant disruption to natural gas supplies. Gas prices on U.S. commodity markets rose sharply immediately after the blast.
This explosion occurred in April, just as the Northeast was emerging from the coldest months of the year. Had natural gas supplies been disrupted on such a large, sudden scale in January – at the height of the winter heating season – gas suppliers may have been forced to curtail deliveries to gas-fired power plants, which generate electricity, in order to prevent shortages to home heating customers.
A worst-case scenario: Price spikes for electricity, and the possibility of rolling blackouts.
New Jersey, traditionally, has relied on a diverse mix of fuels to generate electricity: Approximately half our energy has come from nuclear, with the remaining split between natural gas and coal and, more recently, a small but growing amount of solar (currently around 1 percent).
But new drilling technology has led to increasing supplies of natural gas. This natural gas boom has driven prices to historic lows – and that has put pressure on other energy sources. For example: Coal, which a decade ago provided one-fifth of New Jersey’s energy, is heading to zero. Many coal plants have closed or announced that they will close – including PSEG’s two coal plants in New Jersey.
Low electricity prices also are putting pressure on the nuclear industry. Nationwide, several nuclear plants have closed or announced they are closing. New Jersey’s nuclear plants are not immune from those same economic pressures.
Naturally, low natural gas prices are welcomed by consumers, who see reductions in their monthly bills. But an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that New Jersey is among several states at risk of becoming over-reliant on natural gas – which could lead to supply shortages and higher customer costs.
And, as last year’s incident in Pennsylvania demonstrated, gas supplies can be disrupted – by disasters or other factors – at any moment.
If New Jersey’s nuclear plants were to succumb to economic pressures and shut down, they almost certainly would be replaced by natural gas – currently the least expensive alternative. Renewables, such as solar or wind, are not yet technologically feasible and, as emerging technologies, remain cost-prohibitive.
Growth in demand for natural gas also would require upgrades to the delivery system. The current gas system originally was built to supply heat for homes. If we were to replace nuclear with natural gas, it would require a much more robust gas delivery system – with the construction of additional pipelines throughout the state.
Nuclear energy’s place in New Jersey’s diverse energy mix is more than a good idea; it’s also public policy – found in the state’s Energy Master Plan.
The Energy Master Plan reads: “The State sees nuclear power as an important element of a diverse resource portfolio. New Jersey should remain committed to the objective assessment of how nuclear power fits into the diversified resource mix to meet economic, reliability and environmental goals.”
Preserving New Jersey’s nuclear plants will help preserve the state’s fuel diversity, providing for a more reliable, affordable energy supply.
Last year’s pipeline incident should serve as evidence that over-reliance on one source of fuel to generate electricity – putting all our eggs in one energy basket – could have costly consequences.
Richard Jackson is executive director of the New Jersey Energy Coalition, which supports the production of clean, reliable and affordable energy.
Executive Director, New Jersey Energy Coalition