Opinion | Don't repair or replace aging gas lines; shut the gas off

Steve Smiley

Steven B. Smiley is an energy economist from Omena

On a cold windy Detroit night, wind energy will be heating the city less than the cost of natural gas. And on a hot summer day, solar energy can cool the city with electric air-conditioning, fans, stored ice and absorption chillers; cheaper than peaking power natural gas turbines. While the solar panels can be placed anywhere inside the local electric distribution system, wind energy will need the transmission arteries that are clogged with financially underwater, subsidized coal and atomic power plants that are an increasing burden on citizens.

On average, wind and solar energy, combined with cheap thermal storage, competes with natural gas and other fossil fuels for heating and power when all costs are accounted for. This can be done mostly with existing electric distribution infrastructure because our electric companies have twice the capacity on average, and three times the capacity at night to deliver electricity into cheap large thermal storage along with increasingly cheap electric battery storage. The cost of such a change will be a fraction of digging up aging leaking gas lines and installing new—and our public service electric utilities can benefit by doubling their electric distribution. It only takes smart controls and smart utility managers.

Many of our electric utilities already deliver off-peak electric energy (kilowatt-hours) at prices competitive with natural gas with the present fleet of electric generation. Now, with the new fleet of high capacity factor wind turbines, wind energy can be delivered for under two cents a kilowatt-hour marginal cost on a windy day, and under four cents on average.

The Illinois PIRG’s study “Tragedy of Errors” on Chicago gas line replacement dysfunction, along with opinion articles in recent years regarding the terrible natural gas explosions and deaths in New York and California, have highlighted the problem with aging and leaking natural gas lines. In some places the gas lines are 100 years old, and on average 50 years old. Mark Bittman, in a New York Times opinion article says repairing gas lines in New York City, estimated by him at $60 billion, is a cost that the citizens can afford, less than the cost of a cappuccino a day to the residents. But why pay it, rather than invest in clean energy while avoiding the costs of natural gas? We do not need to invest $60 billion to repair and replace aging gas lines in New York City or in Detroit; we just need to shut the gas off, avoiding the $60 billion repair expense, environmental and fuel costs. Minneapolis, Cleveland and Chicago can do the same. Now that wind and solar energy will beat the cost of gas, Detroit can displace dangerous aging natural gas lines with cost-effective clean electric power—keeping the gas money in our home pockets while multiplying jobs. This energy can power the new fleets of electric vehicles too, at a much lower cost than gasoline.

Whether from economic, environmental or political reasons, fracking bans and carbon fees, gas and oil pipelines will soon become buried historical artifacts of a fossil fuel age gone by, just like the gaslight pipes buried in old walls, the coal bins and kerosene oil lamps. As some have said “the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones.” Spending another dime on digging up and replacing old gas and oil pipelines is a waste.

Putting clean distributed wind energy into nighttime storage for daytime heating while supplying daylight peak power use with solar and wind is one of the most beneficial earning investments we can make, a modern gold mine. And it’s already in the budget; the money we pay in our utility bills. Pay for heat and power from fossil fuels and pipelines or pay for cheaper wind and solar—you pick. This will accelerate and pave the path to 100 percent renewable energy--saving $100 billion or more just for cities like Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland, New York City and Chicago.

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Kevin Grand
Mon, 10/14/2019 - 7:18am

Which begs the question pertaining to this "storage" of energy: Exactly how much does this add to the equation and how long does it last?

Anyone who has had to change a battery in their cell phone, car or even something as basic as a flashlight knows that batteries do have a finite life span.

And those batteries don't just magically spring into existence. They need to be manufactured.

A troubling detail that no one wants to address.



Judy M
Mon, 10/14/2019 - 11:07am

As apparently, so do gas lines.

Patricia Nelson
Mon, 10/14/2019 - 9:15am

Thanks to Mr. Smiley for helping us envision alternatives. I'll look forward to seeing more specific comparions of costs and benefits.

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 9:16am

And then there are the NIMBY’s. Most wind farms have some sort of “save the birds” activity going on against them. People along the western Michigan shoreline objected that wind turbines placed in Lake Michigan would destroy their view. Same with a proposal along the southern coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A Florida electric company proposed putting up car ports with solar panels on their roof in a municipal parking lot. That project was killed by objecting citizens. Home Owner Associations all over the land object to anything that is different from what is there today.

As an engineer, I am for anything that makes more efficient the cost of building or using something. What is needed are laws or regulations that allow innovation without obstruction. Without that, we will be back at the turn of the 20th century when people were fighting to save horses and buggy whips by objecting to that newfangled thing called a car.

Gary Lea
Mon, 10/14/2019 - 9:42am

I'm fascinated with Michigan's Ludington Pumped Storage Power Plant, owned jointly by Consumers Energy and DTE Energy. In operation since 1973, last year $800 million was 'pumped' into upgrading it: https://energynews.us/2018/09/24/midwest/michigan-utilities-upgrade-pump...
This article's author is not alone, for the cost of electricity by low-carbon means may undercut the cost of natural gas electric generation by the mid-2030s according to the Rocky Mountain Institute: https://rmi.org/a-bridge-backward-the-risky-economics-of-new-natural-gas...

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 3:34pm

Not carbon free, since they use electricty to run the pumps that fill it with water from the lake in the first place. And no they don't get nearly as much power out of it as it takes to fill it. But it's a good illustration of the problem with renewables, since Consumer's knows that they can't just start and stop power generation once it's going, so they use off peak demand time power to fill it and can let their generators keep running at max efficiency . Which is the same problem with wind power and solar and lack of predictability and control.

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 9:07am

Those pumps could just as easily be run off of excess solar and wind power. Try again, Matt

Doug L
Mon, 10/14/2019 - 10:59am

And remember last winter when there was a problem at a gas pumping station. We were all asked by the governor to turn the heat down so there would be enough gas to keep everyone's furnace going. We clearly do not have an adequate natural gas delivery system to be replacing coal fired electrical generating plants with natural gas plants. If we were counting on natural gas to provide out electricity last winter, we would have been cold and dark, with no heat or electricity. Additionally, according to an NPR report, if gas leakage exceeds about 3%, the greenhouse effects of natural gas become worse than coal. And leakage commonly exceeds 3%. Using natural gas to generate electricity is a disaster in the making.

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 11:31am

Thank you for pointing out the folly of propping up a dying fossil fuel infrastructure. Fossil fuel companies externalize their costs, (air pollution as in particulates and heavy metals, water pollution as in the Kalamazoo River, land pollution as in toxic waste storage). We are exterminating birds and insects at a terrifying rate with our fossil fuel economy. Pay now or die later.

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 11:32am

No, we are paying a lot more for it, but it is through our taxes so it doesn't seem that way. The federal government pays around 3/4 of the cost of wind generator construction. Then they are only designed to operate for 10 years before being replaced. Battery technology has been at a standstill for several years now as all the combinations of elements to try has run out. Not to mention the limitations to using these options. As I understand it, only 1/2 of wind generators can operate at any given time. Because of our location on the planet, solar panels can never work at full capacity either. In the winter, according to the article about East Lansing's solar grid, at best they only operate at 18% capacity. So you need to have that many more wind generators and solar panels to make up for the deficiencies. Not to mention our weather is less than cooperative a majority of the time. Back in 2016, there was a 2 week stretch where the solar arrays of the BWL produced no more than 5 watts at any given time due to the cloud cover. Additionally, there was not enough wind for a week the generators in Gratiot County couldn't operate. I would question the point of the opinion as an economist, you know these substantial drawbacks, but fail to mention them.

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 9:42am

Your argumentative power engineer here: Your argument would hold water if the state of Michigan was an isolated grid that could not import power. There's a decade of research demonstrating that a nationwide HVDC grid would have sufficient renewable generation capacity across the continent to ride through adverse local weather conditions

Gary Meerschaert
Mon, 10/14/2019 - 11:36am

Two issues that are not addressed in this article.
1) The cost of updating our electrical infrastructure. The existing service lies in Detroit are very old. They can not now deliver the power need to supply all of the homes with sufficient power for electrical heat to all of the homes. In addition, the power lines should be placed underground for reliability. The cost of this will be quite high.

2) The cost of replacing all of the furnaces and boilers has not been added to this calculation. Who will subsidize the low-income households, as well as finance the others, for this conversion? Have the costs of conversion even been estimated?

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 2:45pm

Sounds great Mr. Smiley! When can we plan a tour (virtual would work fine) of your home showing how you successfully and completely cut the cord (and gas line) and are now powering your entire home from carbon free sources (wind and solar)? No, I don't mean that carbon offset nonsense or switching to the power company or a generator when it's dark, your battery is out and wind isn't blowing. Looking forward to seeing your link. I think it’s great that you can run your own home entirely carbon free and renewable this before you push doing this for the entire economy.

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 9:38am

Bad faith trash, same as ever Matt:

We can't fix systemic issues with on individual actions alone, which is part of why libertarianism is a sham for dealing with modern economies and politics

James F Bish
Wed, 10/16/2019 - 10:28am

I live in NW Detroit & think DTE gets it. I recently got a brochure from DTE/partners offering a plan to install solar panels with $zero down & a monthly payment. Also, they have a substantial solar farm (Greenfield Rd & I-96, which was a city owned playground & ball park, long abandoned.
Perhaps they are trying to short circuit the growing movement of those who are attempting to independently bypass their electrical grid.

Thu, 01/02/2020 - 8:20am

I'll keep my gas lines,thank you. When everything else isn't working because of darkness,lack of wind or i can't afford a battery bank to power my house, my natural gas has never failed in 30 years. Think about that for 1 minute. Never failed...no once. No matter the weather.