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Wellinghoff: Changing Energy Landscape Still Dependent on Gas

The next 20 years should see the development of an upgraded electric grid, bolstered by fully integrated renewables and electric appliances providing regulation service with few, if any, new nuclear or coal generators -- and a major role for natural gas, FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said Wednesday.

"Natural gas is going to be there for a while," Wellinghoff told reporters at United States Energy Association headquarters in Washington, DC. "It's got to be there to get us through this transition, which is going to take us 30 or more years to get to. Fortunately we've got a lot of natural gas. In the last 10 years we found out we have twice as much natural gas as we thought we had. And so it's going to remain relatively inexpensive...natural gas is the fuel that will get us over that edge."

The use of natural gas to produce electricity will continue and continue to become more efficient, according to Wellinghoff said. "I think we'll start to use natural gas not so much at central power plants but in more distributed ways. We'll use it for microturbines, and for combined heat and power. We'll use it more on site, and in that way we can ultimately use all the attributes of the fuel -- not only producing electricity but also the heat recovery for both heating and for cooling."

The cost of new plants may already have brought an end to coal and the much-ballyhooed nuclear renaissance, Wellinghoff said. "We may not need any [nuclear or coal] ever," while natural gas could be used as a bridge to a renewables-dominated future, he said.

Planning the shift to renewables must be done in the next three to five years to avoid a transmission traffic jam, he said. ITC Holdings Corp. recently unveiled plans for a 12,000 MW high-voltage transmission project to carry wind-generated power from the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa to demand centers such as Chicago and Minneapolis. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has already approved anchor shippers for two 1,000-mile high-voltage lines to carry up to 3,000 MW each of wind power from Montana and Wyoming to Nevada, and other major renewable transmission projects are being planned.

"You only have so many corridors. You only have a limited amount of space to be able to put these things. So at some point some level of development is going to reach the edge where you can't put another line because there's no more corridor, but yet you've got hundreds of gigawatts behind you that could be developed -- but there's no place left for it to go," Wellinghoff said. "So we have to figure out how to make sure that these lines are adequately sized and properly planned for reliability and stability of the grid. And that's what we need to do over the next three to five years."

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