New England’s power grid is in good shape now and home solar and energy efficiency efforts mean the region’s annual demand for electricity is projected to decline, according to the grid’s operators. But there are also problems ahead.
The top official for ISO-New England warned Tuesday that “for the foreseeable future, New England will be dependent on stored and imported fossil fuels and imported electrical energy.”
Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of the region’s independent system operator, said oil- and coal-fired plants were critical to keeping the grid operating during New England’s late December and early January cold snap. Natural gas prices soared during those weeks.
Some environmentalists have argued that the fact New England’s power grid managed to cope with that bitter cold spell is proof the region doesn’t need billions of dollars in new energy infrastructure projects. A 2015 study by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office found that costly new pipelines wouldn’t be necessary because of solar, wind and energy efficiency progress.
But van Welie rejected that claim, in part because more New England coal- and oil-fired plants are being retired or are expected to shut down because of lack of profits and tougher air pollution emission standards.
“More than 5,000 megawatts of the remaining coal- and oil-fired generators are at risk of retirement because of low revenues in the energy markets as well as environmental restrictions,” van Welie said.
He also warned that the cold spell showed that weather can slow or halt resupply of fuels like coal, oil and liquefied natural gas.
Van Welie renewed warnings that this region doesn’t have enough gas pipelines to meet demand during peak periods, and is now unlikely to build any new gas lines in the near future.
“Fuel security is the greatest challenge to continuing power system reliability,” van Welie said.
Van Welie said another difficulty is that renewable resources like solar and wind can only work when the weather is right, making their output highly variable.
He said supplying power at night or on low-wind days or in bitter cold weather when renewables aren’t producing much will still require fossil fuel plants — particularly natural gas facilities.
The forecasted reduction in overall demand for electricity will also eventually make those natural gas plants less profitable, van Welie said.
Another factor in this economic equation is that states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are providing subsidies to encourage renewable energy production. According to van Welie, that means that those clean energy projects will be able to “participate in the [energy] markets at artificially low prices,” giving them an advantage over fossil fuel and nuclear plants.
ISO-New England analysts also warn that this region needs more energy storage capacity, both to store power generated by wind and solar and to maintain reserves of fuel like liquefied natural gas.
In 2017, natural gas was the primary fuel used to generate electricity in New England, producing 48 percent of all power produced by generation plants in the region.
“Natural gas is the primary or secondary fuel for more than half of the existing power plant fleet, and almost a third of the proposed new [generation] capacity would use natural gas,” van Welie said.
The problem with expanding what energy officials insist is inadequate pipeline capacity into the region is that court and administrative rulings in Massachusetts have ruled out using electricity ratepayer money to pay for new gas pipelines.
Without being able to charge ratepayers, energy companies have been unable to finance these multibillion-dollar pipeline projects.