Gas & Power Generation

Natural gas is one of the key fuel inputs for electric power generation. New technology, particularly combined-cycle technology, has made the natural gas power plant the energy system of choice in recent years-and gas remains a leading fuel of choice for future power plants as well.

Gas Plant Advantages: Lower Emissions, Higher Efficiency

Power generation is one of the leading natural gas consuming sectors in the Northeast region. Air emissions from power generation in the region have dropped significantly in the past 15 years thanks in great part to the use of cleaner-burning and more efficient fuels such as natural gas. Shown here is a new natural gas power plant under construction in Massachusetts.

The comparative advantages of natural gas power generation include higher efficiency, lower heat rate, shorter construction lead times, and reduced air pollutant emissions compared to other fossil fuels.

The rise in natural gas use in power generation is leading to substantially lower air emissions, from sulfur dioxide to carbon dioxide. Energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2016 in the U.S. were down 1.7% from the prior year. EIA noted in October 2017 that "Emissions have declined in 6 out of the past 10 years, and energy-related CO2 emissions in 2016 were 823 MMmt (14%) below 2005 levels." EIA observes that "growth in natural gas consumption contributed to the overall 2016 decline in total emissions."

Regarding the electric generation sector in particular, EIA states: "Two basic factors contributed to lower electricity generation carbon intensity (CO2/kilowatthour) since 2005: substitution of coal-fired generation with the less-carbon-intensive and more efficient combined-cycle natural gas-fired generation, and growth in non-carbon electricity generation, especially wind and solar."

At the regional level, the same dynamic is in play. In New York State, from 2000 to 2016, NY ISO reports that emissions rates from the power sector dropped by 43% for CO2, 87% for NOx, and 98% for SO2. ISO-NE reports that from 2001 to 2015, total emissions from power plants in New England dropped by 95% for sulfur dioxide (SO2), 68% for nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 24% for CO2.

For New Jersey, the state reported in December 2015 that "with the drop in natural gas prices, electricity demand has increasingly been met by cleaner, in-state, combined cycle natural gas generation (NGCC) and less on imported power from facilities with higher, more polluting, emission profiles."

This is good news for the environment.

Gas Seen as Leading Power Sector Input in Coming Decades

Natural gas is positioned to be among the leading fuels for electric power generation in the next decade (and beyond), along with renewables. Gas is also a key fuel input for new technology options like fuel cells, combined heat and power, and distributed generation. Natural gas is also seen as the key "back-up fuel" to offset the variability and intermittency of wind power and other renewables.

Gas plants today remain the leading fuel type for new proposed power generation capacity in the generator queues in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and New England.

As one example of the increasing recent role of gas in power generation, and its potential for growth, The New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) noted in its May 2017 report "Power Trends 2017":
  • "New York's reliance on natural gas-fired capacity is expected to grow as power projects using natural gas account for 56% of all proposed generating capacity."
  • "Today, power plants using natural gas total 57% of New York State's generating capability. Within that set of gas-fired capacity, 84% is dual fuel that can use either natural gas or an alternative fuel (typically oil)."

In its 2017 "Regional System Plan," released in November 2017, ISO-NE stated that "natural-gas-fired generation's proportion of the system capacity mix is expected to grow from 44.5 % in 2017 to approximately 50.9% by 2020 and 56.0% by 2026. Further retirements of coal and oil generators are expected after 2020 due to generally low natural gas prices, renewable energy additions, and pending environmental regulations. The Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts is scheduled for retirement in 2019, and uncertainty surrounds the future of 3,300 MW from the region's remaining nuclear plants. Therefore, the current situation where natural gas fuel prices typically set the marginal price for wholesale electricity is projected to continue over the planning horizon."

Natural Gas Impact on Electricity Prices

The increase in U.S. domestic production of natural gas engendered a much lower commodity price position for the fuel in recent years. This is good news for consumers of natural gas at all end-uses, including power plants.

However, while the regional price can be quite low at certain months of the year, the delivery price of natural gas to Northeast markets can be quite volatile and high during strong-demand periods of the summer and especially the winter.

The Northeast spot price volatility reflects delivery constraints during high-demand periods of intense cold (or even hot) weather. Natural gas utility customers are generally protected from the daily impact of spot prices, thanks to long-term contracts and storage resources held by local gas distribution companies. On the other hand, the power market in the region operates with high levels of interruptible gas capacity and is thus subject to spot market fluctuations, and that in turn impacts electricity customers.

Even with variations in winter weather, natural gas spot price fluctuations can have a real impact on electricity prices where natural gas sets the margin (as in most of the Northeast).

In March 2017, the U.S. EIA observed: "Historically, both the Boston and New York natural gas markets have experienced winter price spikes because of pipeline constraints during periods of peak demand. Natural gas pipeline expansion projects that were completed in recent years may have reduced, but did not eliminate, sharp price increases with anticipated cold weather."

Market Challenges

The regional power generation fleet in the region has become highly reliant on natural gas and may well become more so. There are however several unresolved power market issues that continue to challenge the market.

A central challenge is that - especially in New England - most power generators do not contract for firm gas pipeline capacity under their unilateral control and instead rely on "if and as available" gas non-firm capacity, or, in some cases, capacity held by third parties. Pipeline capacity has routinely been added to meet the needs of gas customers who desire firm service and are willing to execute firm contracts for such service.

The majority of gas-fired power generators in New England opt for non-firm gas transportation services. The generators have long observed that the electric market does not provide the proper incentives to enable them to contract for firm transportation. NGA has encouraged the development of solutions to this power market dilemma, which causes uncertainty for the entire regional energy market.

(Also, as many generators are more reliant on interruptible capacity it is extremely critical that parties comply with pipeline operating rules, as well as the pipeline's tariff-required gas scheduling rules, so that system integrity is maintained to ensure that those customers that do contract for firm capacity receive that service.)

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) initiated in 2012 a comprehensive proceeding on gas and electric market coordination. The FERC issued a final order on this topic in April 2015. The Final Rule declined to adopt the NOPR proposal to move the 9 a.m. CCT start of the gas day to 4 a.m. CCT. The Commission concluded that, while certain efficiencies could be achieved through a better alignment of the natural gas and electric operating days, the record in this proceeding did not justify changing the start time for the nationwide natural gas day. The Final Rule recognizes that several regional efforts continue to address the misalignment between the gas day and the regional electric days.

The New England region continues to be seen as the area facing the most immediate coordination challenges owing to the "interruptible" nature of most of its natural gas-fired power generation capacity. Discussions and studies have been underway on this topic for well over a decade. In February 2014, the New England Natural Gas Industry, representing pipelines, LNG importers, LDCs, and NGA, filed joint comments with FERC on a New England electric market issue. In that filing, the gas participants noted this key point: "Many if not all of the problems with gas-fired electric generation units... [cited by the electric market] are actually problems of gas-fired units that lack firm transportation, not problems of gas-fired generation per se. If gas-fired generation seems like "just-in-time" delivery, it is because generators are contracting for just-in-time delivery or relying on just-in-time delivery from a spot capacity release market. Natural gas can play a valuable long-term role if parties contract for firm transportation and develop the requisite pipeline infrastructure that comes along with that firm contracting."

In 2014, a proposal was made by the New England Governors to the regional electric grid operator to try to resolve this and other energy infrastructure issues. The New England Governors announced that they were seeking to develop transmission infrastructure that can deliver clean energy into the region's electric system and expand pipeline capacity to bring more natural gas to New England. As the region's power generation becomes increasingly reliant on natural gas, noted the governors, infrastructure investments will help ensure adequate and competitively priced supplies of gas and clean energy from diverse sources while lowering the cost of electricity for residents and businesses. This proposed initiative offered an opportunity for New England to resolve its decade-long irresolution over gas power plants and insufficient pipeline capacity.

The regional tariff concept did not advance, but the Governors continued to assess together how best to achieve "regional energy solutions."

The concept of electric distribution companies contracting for gas pipeline capacity on behalf of electric customers was considered at the individual states' level in the region as an approach to overcome the constraints of current regional power market design. In the summer and fall of 2016 however, objections were registered by the MA Supreme Judicial Court and the NH Public Utilities Commission that such a process was contrary to their states' electric industry restructuring laws.

The CEO of ISO-NE in September 2016 characterized New England's electric grid winter operations as "precarious" - a reflection of the fundamentally unchanged gas-electric interface over a decade after the 2004 "cold snap".

Electric & Gas Industry Coordination

The natural gas and electric system operators in the Northeast continue to increase communications and coordination. NGA and ISO New England, for instance, jointly administer an Electric & Gas Operations Committee (EGOC) to increase understanding and information exchanges (on publicly-available information). The EGOC includes the NY ISO and PJM as well as other stakeholders.

NGA also updates the electric grid operators regularly regarding the coordinating work of NGA's Gas Supply Task Force.

With natural gas remaining a significant fuel going forward for electric generation, coordination efforts such as these - both regionally and nationally - are to be encouraged.

For Further Information


Northeast interstate pipelines' electronic bulletin boards (EBBs)

ISO New England

New York ISO


Northeast Power Coordinating Council (NPCC)

North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC)

Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA)

North American Energy Standards Board (NAESB)

FERC Proceeding on Natural Gas-Electric Coordination

NESCOE Web Page on New England Natural Gas-Electric Discussion Group

NGA Background Paper: "Gas-Electric Market Challenges in New England, April 2012" [pdf]