Mass. turned to oil and coal during the cold snap. Here’s what went wrong

A coal-burning power plant steams behind wind generators in Gelsenkirchen, Germany while the 23rd UN Conference of the Parties (COP) climate talks end in Bonn, Germany, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Martin Meissner/Associated Press
A coal-burning power plant steams behind wind generators in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.

For a region that prides itself as a leader against climate change, the numbers were sobering: As recently as Monday, 19 percent of New England’s energy supply came from oil, and 7 percent from coal, according to the grid operator. Rates had climbed even higher on the worst days of the recent cold spell, when power plants in New England burned tons of the dirtiest fuels available. On some days, oil accounted for more than 30 percent of the region’s energy mix.

It’s 2018. Coal and oil shouldn’t play any role generating New England’s electricity, something that almost all policy makers in liberal-minded Massachusetts claim to believe. So what went wrong, and how can it be fixed?

Two culprits stand out. First, efforts by some environmental activists to block natural gas infrastructure, mainly pipelines, have had the opposite of their intended effect. The goal was to prevent more greenhouse gas emissions, but the constraints on natural gas have forced electricity generators to turn to high-emission coal and oil instead. Gas is a fossil fuel, but it releases less carbon than coal and oil. The region would have produced less pollution this month, not more, if it had better gas infrastructure.


Critics of pipelines argue that energy policy shouldn’t be dictated by extreme weather. Maybe, but policy makers can’t ignore it, either: It predictably gets cold in New England, and when it does, the region needs to be able to meet its energy needs without burning coal or oil.

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The second takeaway is that foot-dragging on the development of new renewable energy sources is taking a toll, and that policy makers should place a priority on speed as they manage an ongoing clean-energy procurement.

Long before this latest cold snap, regulators and utilities were sifting through 46 bids to provide long-term clean energy contracts to Massachusetts. They range from proposals for solar panels at old gravel pits in Connecticut to wind farms in Maine to hydropower in Canada. The contracts stem from a 2015 energy bill signed by Governor Charlie Baker, which left regulators with some discretion how to evaluate the bids. Factors like cost, speed, job creation, and the mitigation offered to localities could all factor into the state’s decisions.

The companies behind the bids have been jockeying to present their competitive advantage as most important. The Northern Pass project claims it would come online fastest. A Central Maine power bid may be cheapest. Job creation numbers inside Massachusetts would be small for most of the bids, though they differ in the details.

Since well before Baker became governor, clean energy policy in Massachusetts has been beset by a perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good mentality that’s at odds with the urgency of climate change. The state is in danger of missing its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction goal, in part because the Legislature lost so much time searching energy sources that ticked every conceivable box — local, carbon-free, cheap, etc. In the first round, officials should lean toward bids from experienced companies that offer the fastest, most economical strategy for meeting the state’s needs. A second energy procurement, focused on offshore wind, is scheduled for later this year, and that would be a more appropriate time to consider projects’ economic development potential and local job creation.


When Pilgrim nuclear power plant shuts down in about two years, it will take a huge chunk of carbon-free electricity with it. The experience of the last few weeks suggests that the dirtiest sources of power will be all too ready to fill the resulting gap. It’s up to state officials to ensure that cleaner sources are ready too.