Natural gas and ‘clean’ energy sources hope to replace the loss of nuclear power
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
The pending closure of the Pilgrim nuclear station opens a significant hole in New England’s energy market, and a range of energy developers are racing to fill that gap.
In the short term, industry analysts say, the natural gas sector is poised to benefit the most. But the demise of the Plymouth plant, which has enough capacity to power about 600,000 homes, could eventually help to usher in significant new sources of so-called clean energy: hydropower from Canada, wind farms, and large solar fields.
The news on Tuesday sparked a flurry of calls to speed up efforts that would bring more alternative-energy sources into the region. Governor Charlie Baker, for example, said the loss of Pilgrim poses a potential energy shortage and highlights the need for “clean, reliable” energy proposals, such as a hydropower bill his administration is pushing.
Any new Canadian hydro plant, however, would take years to develop, as would power lines to bring that electricity here.
As a result, the immediate focus will be on the new opportunity for the natural gas industry, which already provides about half of New England’s electricity. (By comparison, Pilgrim can provide about 5 percent.) Gas-fired generators offer more around-the-clock capacity than solar or wind, said Paul Flemming, of the energy consultancy ESAI in Wakefield, and don’t need the big new power lines that dams in Canada would require.
“The bottom line is it creates an opportunity for a full-size . . . power plant to come into the market where they might have been questionable before,” Flemming said. “It most definitely would be a natural gas developer that bids on that capacity.”
That’s not to say natural gas doesn’t have its own infrastructure issues. On particularly cold days in New England, heating customers often consume most of gas in the pipelines, prompting many natural gas power plants to run on oil or not run at all.
That’s why the gas industry is pushing hard for a major new pipeline project in the region, and why the Baker administration just agreed to allow electric utilities to pass along extra costs for new natural gas capacity to their electricity customers.
The loss of Pilgrim could drive up electricity costs in the six-state region by at least $500 million a year if a new pipeline isn’t built, said Anthony Buxton, a lawyer who represents a pro-gas coalition along with pipeline developer Kinder Morgan in Maine.
“Clearly, having a plant of this size coming out of the market is going to have real cost implications,” said Julien Dumoulin-Smith, executive director of the US electric utilities group at UBS Investment Research in New York.
But industry experts also say natural gas can’t be the only answer if Massachusetts wants to meet its aggressive greenhouse gas-reduction goals for a 2020 deadline.
The loss of Pilgrim, which provides much of the state’s low-carbon electricity, represents a big setback in that regard.
While several wind farm proposals are in the works, Canadian hydro could represent the state’s best shot at a large-scale solution. That’s why developers behind power lines that would connect Canada to Massachusetts seized on the Pilgrim announcement Tuesday to champion their projects.
Martin Murray, a spokesman for Eversource Energy’s Northern Pass transmission line, said the line could be built through New Hampshire as soon as mid-2019, which coincides with the latest date that Pilgrim would remain open.
Meanwhile, Anbaric Transmission chief executive Ed Krapels said he’s now considering switching the route of his Wakefield firm’s proposed Maine-to-Massachusetts power line to take advantage of Pilgrim’s shutdown.
Krapels said his company could possibly build the power line underwater for much of the way from Maine, through Massachusetts Bay, to connect to the region’s grid using some of Pilgrim’s transmission infrastructure.
“For people like me . . . this is an opportunity,” Krapels said.
The Pilgrim news coincided with the release of a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists that says Massachusetts is one of eight states that are overly reliant on natural gas. Ken Kimmell, the Cambridge group’s president, said the Pilgrim closure should be a wake-up call for policy makers to curb the state’s dependence on one fuel source.
Wind developers such as SunEdison also hope to benefit. Matt Kearns, SunEdison’s general manager for development in the United States and Canada, said energy generated at proposed wind farms in Maine might be pumped more easily into Massachusetts’ portion of the grid if a new power line from Canada is built.
Much could depend on what happens at the State House in the coming months. Lawmakers are weighing proposals, including the governor’s, that would require utilities to enter into major, long-term contracts for Canadian hydro projects. The Baker administration is also preparing to seek a smaller amount of clean energy through a previous law.
Pilgrim’s end puts more pressure on lawmakers to act on proposals that would renew incentives for the solar market, and possibly require some long-term contracts for offshore wind development. Toward that end, three developers have leases for sections of the ocean south of New England.
Richard Levitan, president of the Boston energy-management consulting firm Levitan & Associates Inc., said offshore wind remains an expensive alternative to onshore options. But he does expect some renewable-energy developers to benefit from Pilgrim’s closure.
“As far as carbon reduction goes, it’s not a good story when you’re looking at the replacement of nuclear output with gas-fired output,” Levitan said. “Renewable energy projects [could] play an integral part.”
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