Indiana utilities are increasingly closing their coal plants and turning to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Some utilities are also considering the addition of natural gas peaker plants, which are used when demand for electricity is high. While utilities argue that these peaker plants are necessary backups for times when renewable resources are unavailable, environmental activists argue that they are unnecessary, polluting, and costly for customers.
Juan Pablo Carvallo, a research scientist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, shed light on the pros and cons of natural gas peaker plants. He mentioned that these plants have the advantage of being available at any time, as they are not reliant on weather conditions like wind and solar power. Additionally, natural gas has historically been affordable and utilities are already familiar with its use. However, Carvallo acknowledged that peaker plants are inefficient, running only 3-5% of the time they are available. This inefficiency makes them expensive for the amount of energy they generate.
Carvallo highlighted that utilities in Indiana may not be fully exploring alternative options to replace coal. While natural gas peaker plants are one solution, Carvallo suggested that battery storage could be a viable alternative. Battery storage is a zero-emissions resource once installed, and the costs associated with it are decreasing over time. However, some utilities, such as CenterPoint, have largely dismissed battery storage as an option.
Carvallo also mentioned that utilities should consider implementing demand response programs. These programs incentivize customers to use less power during high demand periods, reducing the strain on the grid. By incorporating a mix of resources, including small peaker plants, distributed resources, and batteries, utilities can optimize their energy portfolios.
When building their long-term energy plans, utilities typically explore various scenarios and analyze the pros and cons of each option. However, Carvallo found that utilities like NIPSCO and CenterPoint did not consider alternative resources like wind and solar in depth. Moreover, their modeling approaches did not fully account for the risk of outages or extreme weather events. Carvallo suggested that utilities should use more sophisticated modeling tools that simulate the entire system’s operation under different conditions to better understand potential risks.
Lastly, Carvallo discussed the benefits of being part of a multi-state grid, such as MISO’s and PJM’s. By being interconnected, Indiana utilities can access power from other states during outages and potentially obtain cheaper electricity. However, some lawmakers worry about relying too heavily on neighboring states for power and fear the potential for energy crises.
In conclusion, while the transition to renewable energy sources is a positive step for Indiana utilities, there are still several considerations to be made regarding the use of natural gas peaker plants. Exploration of alternative options, sophisticated modeling techniques, and interconnection with neighboring grids could help utilities make more informed decisions about their energy portfolios.
– Juan Pablo Carvallo, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Research Scientist
– Indiana Public Broadcasting