What We Mean When We Talk about Resiliency

We talk a lot about natural gas being an important part of a resilient energy system, but what does “resilient” really mean?

A resilient energy system is one that’s capable of preventing, withstanding, adapting to, and quickly recovering from damage or operational disruption. Natural gas plays a key role in doing all of those things for our energy system, partly because the U.S. has so much of it, and it can all be affordably and efficiently extracted and delivered. When you need energy and you need it now, natural gas is there when other sources might not be.

But there are certain other chemical facts, design characteristics, and very thoughtful management decisions that are endemic to natural gas that help make it one of the most resilient energy sources.

Chemically Resilient

Sure, natural gas, the energy source, is both abundant and accessible (if you can’t get it from one place you can probably get it from another), but there are a lot of characteristics of natural gas, the molecule, that make it ideal for supporting a resilient energy system. The molecule is filled with energy, sticks around for a long time without losing any of its potency, and, arguably most important, it can be liquefied to 1/600th of its volume in gas form. This means natural gas takes up less space, which means you can store a lot more of it in a lot less space than other energy resources.

Physically Resilient

First and foremost, most of the natural gas system operates underground, shielding it from weather and other disruptions that might otherwise derail its continued operation. But beyond that, there are other facets of the natural gas system that show how it’s been designed in such a way that makes disruptions rare, and, if they happen at all, they’re easy to isolate.

As noted in a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “the natural gas network has few single points of failure that can lead to a system-wide propagating failure.” The report continues:

There are a large number of wells, storage is relatively widespread, the transmission system can continue to operate at high pressure even with the failure of half of the compressors, and the distribution network can run unattended and without power. This is in contrast to the electricity grid, which has, by comparison, few generating points, requires oversight to balance load and demand on a tight timescale, and has a transmission and distribution network that is vulnerable to single point, cascading failures.

This quote comes from a report written in 2013. For some subjects that might mean the info is out of date, but for natural gas what it really means is that this actually understates the natural gas system’s resiliency; if anything, the system has only gotten stronger and more resilient since MIT published this paper.

Operationally Resilient

The way the natural gas distribution is managed also accounts for its contribution to energy-system resiliency. Whether operators are preparing for, recovering from, adapting to or currently experiencing a system-disrupting event, each of them has a variety of tools they can deploy to ensure that they have enough gas and that they can get it where it needs to go safely. One of these is the Mutual Assistance Program, which empowers utilities to provide and receive aid from other utilities in the event of a disaster or other emergency. This aid comes in the form of sharing staff and sharing stored gas as well.

Finally, natural gas utilities aren’t twiddling their thumbs waiting around for the next disaster to put their systems to the test; the industry shares information and conducts long-term and emergency resource planning every day to make sure when catastrophe strikes they’re never caught flat-footed. Then, after things calm down, they look back to see what went right and what went wrong, and then they make improvements for the future.

So, the next time you read the word “resiliency” in the context of natural gas and America’s energy systems, just remember everything that goes into those ten letters. You wouldn’t know that all of this work is going on behind the scenes, every day, to make sure the energy system works even when it faces significant challenges but, that’s kind of the point, right?