The devastating blackouts that rocked Texas nearly a year ago were a long way from here. But they don’t seem far away at all for the many key players in New England’s electricity industry.
With last winter’s tragedy still on everyone’s mind, the vulnerabilities of this region’s grid have become a more pressing concern. Consider the chatter at a meeting of power plant operators in the Seaport last month.
“New England is the next region to be at risk,” Curt Morgan, CEO of natural gas plant owner Vistra Corp., told other members of the New England Power Generators Association. “With a lot of focus toward offshore wind and a bitter hatred toward gas [here], I think it’s going to be a real challenge.”
What has become an annual debate over the reliability of New England’s power grid has taken on additional urgency since the Texas outages, in which millions of customers lost power. New England has two big advantages over Texas: Power plants and equipment here are well insulated against cold weather, and unlike Texas, this region has a secondary market for backup power, an expensive insurance policy of sorts to provide extra capacity in times of peak demand.
However, New England’s grid has its own glaring weakness: an overreliance on natural gas, which is the primary fuel for many of the region’s power plants.
Heating customers get priority for pipeline gas ahead of those plants — meaning supplies can get constrained on particularly cold days, when people crank up their thermostats. Power plant operators then turn to oil turbines as backups, if they have them, and New England’s last remaining coal plant might get called into service. Those backup measures helped New England squeak through several severe cold snaps in 2014 and 2017-18 without ISO New England — the nonprofit that operates the regional power grid — needing to resort to rolling blackouts to protect the grid’s integrity. But ISO New England CEO Gordon van Welie made it clear, in his annual winter forecast last month, that New England might not be as lucky if the region gets hit with another prolonged stretch of frigid weather.
“The strategic question for New England is: Are we comfortable living with a supply chain that is that fragile?” van Welie said in an interview.
It turns out, power plant owners aren’t the only ones concerned. State regulators are, too.
In a letter last month, Connecticut energy commissioner Katie Dykes pushed van Welie to lay out his plans to address reliability this winter and next — at least until a new two-year plan takes effect in the winter of 2023-2024 to reward generators for storing fuel for use at times of peak winter demand.
When his response didn’t satisfy her, Dykes brought in her colleagues from the five other New England states, who together make up the New England States Committee on Electricity, to ratchet up the pressure. The committee sent its own letter to ISO New England last week, essentially accusing it of doing too little to address the region’s immediate energy woes.
“Of course I’m worried,” Dykes said. “We need to ensure this grid, that ratepayers are paying significant sums for, is going to perform even through cold winter periods.”
At least two factors drove van Welie to put a bigger spotlight on the issue: the increased risks of extreme weather, brought about by climate change and underscored by the Texas tragedy, and the sky-high prices for natural gas in Europe and Asia. Most of New England’s natural gas arrives via pipeline from domestic sources, such as the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. But some is shipped here from other countries in super-cooled, liquefied form. The operators of these ships often chase the best prices for the LNG, so when demand is high elsewhere in the world, they’re less likely to bring their cargo to New England or Canada.
“We’re more vulnerable this winter,” said Richard Levitan, president of energy consultancy Levitan & Associates. “The vulnerability is heightened as a result of the uncertainty around restocking the LNG import terminals in Everett and in New Brunswick.”
Looming over this entire debate: the likelihood of permitting delays and hurdles. A successful court challenge eventually sidelined National Grid’s and Eversource’s Access Northeast project in 2017 to expand the region’s pipeline gas capacity, to better serve the power plants. In November, Maine voters rejected Avangrid’s nearly $1 billion power-line project to import hydroelectricity from Canada. And the region’s first substantial offshore wind farm, known as Vineyard Wind, is several years behind schedule.
“I’m really worried about how difficult we’ve made it in New England to build anything,” said Cheryl LaFleur, a former federal energy regulator who chairs ISO’s board of directors. “If we’re going to use more renewables, we actually have to site them and build them. . . . It’s going to take a lot of political leadership.”
Some of this tension, industry consultant James Bride said, is due to a concerted effort to move to a cleaner electric grid with more hydropower and solar energy, and new offshore wind. If enough of those projects come to fruition within the next five years, the effort will look like bold leadership, Bride said. If not, or if they prove unreliable, it could be a disaster, he said, particularly in the coldest months of the year.
Environmentalists say policy makers should redouble their support for offshore wind, in particular, to wean the region off natural gas, and reach the states’ ambitious emission reduction goals. Susannah Hatch, clean energy coalition director at the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said home-grown electricity from offshore wind could help address price spikes for fossil fuels.
Relying on renewables has its own risks. Wind farms deliver no power when winds aren’t blowing, or when they’re too fierce. And large-scale batteries or “green hydrogen,” to store the power those offshore projects create, remain experimental for now.
“We need to address climate change, and we also need to ensure reliability,” said Dan Dolan, chief executive of the power generators association. “And it’s balancing that and doing it at some level of affordable cost that is the true trick here.”
Demand for electricity has fallen somewhat in recent years in New England. But that trend is expected to reverse: ISO New England predicts the demand could essentially double by 2050 as consumers shift toward electric power for heating and transportation, as policy makers try to pare back carbon emissions. That will put even more pressure on the system.
“It’s already a big problem if your lights go out due to an outage on the grid,” said Alicia Barton, chief executive of FirstLight Power, a Burlington-based operator of hydroelectric facilities. “It’s going to be an even bigger problem if you’re completely tied to that grid for vehicle fueling and home heating gas as well.”
So far, this winter has gone relatively smoothly so far. The spells of frigid weather have been brief. Van Welie said last week that his latest forecast shows no extended cold snap on the horizon, leaving him hopeful that New England will make it through what is typically the coldest period of the winter without the need to implement rolling blackouts.
In the 25 years since its creation, van Welie said, ISO New England has never had to resort to significant controlled outages — its term for rolling blackouts used to maintain the grid when it’s under duress. That’s “one part skill and one part luck,” he said.
Left unsaid: Skill can only count for so much, if luck runs out.