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Natural gas prices are rising. Why that helps the cleanest (and dirtiest) electricity sources.

Gas has been cheap in the United States for more than a decade. And low gas prices contributed to low electricity prices. But gas prices have soared in the past month.

A Peoples Gas crew installing a new 12-inch main in Albany Park. Gas has been cheap in the United States for more than a decade, a result of the vast supply producers unlocked through fracking in shale formations. Low gas prices have contributed to low electricity prices. But gas prices have soared in the past month because of disruptions to gas infrastructure from Hurricane Ida and a hot summer that boosted gas demand and economic growth, as the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
A Peoples Gas crew installing a new 12-inch main in Albany Park. Gas has been cheap in the United States for more than a decade, a result of the vast supply producers unlocked through fracking in shale formations. Low gas prices have contributed to low electricity prices. But gas prices have soared in the past month because of disruptions to gas infrastructure from Hurricane Ida and a hot summer that boosted gas demand and economic growth, as the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times file

Natural gas prices have surged, hitting $5 per million BTUs in the past month — about double the price of six months ago and the highest September price since 2008.

An increase in natural gas prices leads to price hikes across the economy for home heating, fertilizer, chemicals — and wholesale electricity because of the power sector’s heavy reliance on gas-fired power plants.

Gas has been cheap in the United States for more than a decade, a result of the vast supply producers unlocked through fracking in shale formations. Low gas prices have contributed to low electricity prices.

But gas prices have soared in the last month because of disruptions to gas infrastructure from Hurricane Ida and a hot summer that boosted gas demand and economic growth, as the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.

The rising demand is taking place at a time supply has not yet caught up, resulting in low levels of gas reserves. That combination of factors is leading to high prices and the possibility of even higher prices if this winter turns out to be unusually cold.

The probable financial winners include just about everybody who sells electricity, especially owners of coal-fired power plants.

Among the losers, other than consumers paying the bills, are owners of older and less-efficient gas-fired power plants, said Eric Gimon, a senior fellow at the think tank Energy Innovation.

NATURAL GAS PRICES GOING UP

SOURCE: Energy Information Administration 
SOURCE: Energy Information Administration
Paul Horn / Inside Climate News

If prices continue to be high or increase further, some gas plants would run less, while coal plants would run more, which is bad news for the climate because coal emits much more carbon per unit of electricity than gas. Most of the least-efficient coal plants already have closed, leaving those that are well-equipped to take advantage of more expensive gas prices.

Clean energy sources also stand to benefit from high prices. But it’s not as simple as what is likely to happen with coal, Gimon said. Wind farms and solar arrays can grab higher profits if they are selling some of their output at market prices. But most are selling power at predetermined prices to utilities, corporations or other buyers.

The larger benefit for wind and solar developers is that an increase in electricity prices helps boost demand for renewable energy for buyers seeking a hedge against a chaotic market.

“The more erratic gas is, then the more the hedging value is attractive,” Gimon said.

But the changes he’s describing would be fleeting if gas prices retreat to the level of the 2010s by late winter or early spring.

Ian Lange, director of the mineral and energy economics program at the Colorado School of Mines, said he views the gas price increase as part of a short-term imbalance between supply and demand that will likely work itself out by next spring.

“Supply is going to catch up,” Lange said, meaning gas producers will respond to high prices by increasing production.

Lange said there’s some talk, common during any price spike, of the market entering a new era in which prices will remain high. But he thinks that’s unlikely.

He does see a short window — maybe the next few months — in which coal plants will be more profitable than they have been in a while.

“They’ll make a lot of money in the short term,” he said. “They’re probably riding these things out, almost on their last legs, and taking the profits.”

One wildcard is the increasing frequency of severe weather events like the storm last winter in Texas or Hurricane Ida in Louisiana this summer. Both damaged natural gas infrastructure and led to brief price spikes. Storm-related price increases could become more common, but that’s different from long-term changes in supply and demand.

Another thing to watch is how high gas prices this winter might affect the push by government officials and clean energy advocates for the development of all-electric buildings and energy efficiency measures in old houses. Consumers are more likely to pay more attention to their energy use when they get stung by a few high bills.

Gimon said he thinks gas prices will fall by next spring and that the market will settle into what has been normal for the last decade. His outlook is almost identical to Lange’s, though Gimon said his is more guess than prediction.

“Not only do I not know, but I would be very suspicious of anybody who claims that they do know,” he said.