Soaring demand for electricity generated by wind and solar will create more need for natural gas infrastructure to prevent blackouts, according to the boss of pipeline giant Williams Companies.
The comments from Alan Armstrong, Williams’s chief executive, run counter to climate policies that aim to squeeze fossil fuels such as natural gas out of US power grids.
Clean energy sources such as wind and solar, backed by storage batteries, have plummeted in cost and gained electricity market share.
But as policies meant to increase the use of electricity in cars and heavy industry also increase the load on the grid, more pipelines will be needed to feed fuel to gas-fired generators that can back up intermittent renewable systems, argued Armstrong.
“Nobody’s ever going to be comfortable saying: ‘Oh, we’re willing to risk that for five days, we don’t have wind or solar and we’re not going to have a back-up’,” he told the Financial Times.
Williams, with a market value of $37bn, is paid to transport gas but does not sell the fuel itself. The Oklahoma-based company operates more than 30,000 miles of pipelines, including the vast Transco system that ships shale gas from Texas to the east coast.
The federal Energy Information Administration forecasts a leap in wind and solar power generating capacity in the coming decades, driven in part by huge clean energy subsidies that President Joe Biden signed into law last year as part of his pledge to halve US greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Stanford University academics last year concluded that a combination of wind, solar and hydropower, coupled with battery storage, new transmission lines, and the management of demand could meet all the US’s incremental power needs. Their paper said this could be achieved “without blackouts in variable weather throughout the US”.
But the EIA’s forecasts for natural gas demand by 2050 range widely. Electrification of new sectors is expected to bring a significant increase in the load on the grid by then, requiring a doubling of total generation capacity.
“It’s great to have renewables, and we’ll be able to continue to reduce emissions and the amount of gas that we burn, the fossil fuels that we burn . . . but it doesn’t change the need for incremental [gas] capacity as we electrify,” Armstrong said.
The comments from the Williams chief, whose company handles about a third of the gas shipped in the US, come just weeks after the Biden administration agreed to expedite approvals for the controversial Mountain Valley gas pipeline to send shale gas from West Virginia to Virginia.
The project, developed by EQM Midstream Partners, utility NextEra Energy and other pipeline companies, was a “disaster” given its years of delay and cost inflation, Armstrong said. But its inclusion in the recent debt ceiling deal struck between the White House and congressional Republicans was a “powerful message” of support, he added.
US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm had “finally heard enough from the utilities and she’s seen enough now that she realises there’s a practical limit to how fast you can transition”, Armstrong added, referring to meetings he and utilities bosses had held with her.
The Department of Energy did not comment on the meetings.
Armstrong also expressed sympathy for climate activists who are opposed to two technologies that feature prominently in many clean energy scenarios: hydrogen as well as carbon capture and storage.
Environmentalists were fighting hydrogen and carbon capture “for good reasons”, he said, because plants to make hydrogen and capture the CO₂ would themselves consume significant amounts of electricity.
“If you throw [electricity demand] from hydrogen and carbon capture into that, you’re going to be way outpacing your ability to build renewables. And so you’re actually going to be burning more and more fossil fuels to provide hydrogen.”
Williams is involved in five so-called hydrogen hubs and has said pipeline companies could benefit from new demand for shipping carbon dioxide and hydrogen around the country.
“We would benefit as much as anybody, frankly, if [hydrogen] were to become a big market,” Armstrong said. “But it just doesn’t make economic sense and it doesn’t make any sense from the emissions perspective.”