As utilities generate more electricity from natural gas, the potential is emerging for freak weather or other events to cause problems for both delivery systems and create a cascading regional disaster, industry officials and regulators concluded in a “stress test scenario” played out in Washington, DC this past Sunday.

Planning to avoid such events, in which problems in the gas system aggravate problems in the electric system and vice-versa, is complicated by the two energy systems’ significantly different regulatory structures, officials said.

“When I go back to California, in my dialogue with the governor and the PUC, I will be raising these issues,” said Public Utility Commissioner Timothy Simon.

The exercise was conducted by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a session on Gas-Electric Interdependencies held at NARUC’s winter meeting. Officials from a regional electric transmission organization, an interstate pipeline, a gas distributor, an electric utility, and Simon, as the regulator, role-played a scenario in which an unanticipated cold snap suddenly taxed both gas and electric delivery systems.

In the scenario, failures in gas delivery forced some generators off-line, and loss of generation affected power supply some pipeline compressors. By the end of the scenario, the transmission operator was facing selective blackouts, in the middle of a freak snowstorm, to keep the rest of the grid stable.

Read more about stresses on the US and regional transmission systems here.

Same World, Different Planets

Several attendees said this exercise was the first they could recall to grapple with the interactions of the two systems, which exist in sufficiently different spheres that the session began with explanations of key terminology used in each energy for the benefit of those in the other field.

Wes Yeomans, Vice President of Operations, New York Independent System Operator, said ISOs “normally have no daily knowledge” of gas supply issues. Speakers said both electric and gas system operators plan backup for some failures, and Richard Kruse, Vice President, Spectra Energy Transmission, said it’s extremely rare to have “simultaneous peak (demand) across the entire system,” as the scenario posited.

FERC Commissioner John Norris, who acted as “referee” for the exercise, said it showed “we’re going to have to deal with this.”

Virtually all US energy forecasts anticipate displacement of substantial older coal capacity with natural gas, especially in light of new Environmental Protection Agency rules. Electric utilities got 63.5% more power from natural gas in 2010 than they did in 2000, according to Energy Information Administration figures, and the rate of increase has been accelerating as the price of natural gas has stayed depressed.

Among the issues facing regulators is the time needed to build new infrastructure. In natural gas, FERC has jurisdiction over interstate pipelines and new lines are permitted and built in an average of three years, according to the EIA.

In electricity, new transmission is permitted state by state and high-voltage interstate lines often run into strong local opposition, making electricity transmission build-outs the work of a decade or more.

Congress gave FERC some authority over transmission in 2005 legislation, but FERC still can’t overrule state decisions, and electricity system regulation rests primarily with each state while gas regulation is largely at FERC. Proposals to give FERC eminent domain or otherwise take authority from states routinely meets strong state opposition in Congress.

For more on the interaction between federal and state energy regulators, read a recent interview with a former FERC Commissioner on Breaking Energy here.

Simon and Norris both agreed the wide difference in ability to make system changes must be looked at in integrated energy planning.

Mark Lauby of the North American Electric Reliability Council, which is responsible for reliability of electricity systems nationally, said NERC will be looking at planning coordination between electricity and gas in an upcoming report.

Photo Caption: A family sits around a table lit by lanterns during a massive blackout in Santiago on September 24, 2011. A widespread blackout plunged Chile’s capital and other regions into darkness late Saturday due to a problem with the national power grid, the Chilean emergency service said.