New England Faces Risk of Rollings Blackouts Without New Pipelines

New England grid operator warns of rolling blackouts without new pipelines

Telegram, Janurary 19, 2018

THE ISSUE: While New England has become increasingly reliant on natural gas to produce electricity, some say pipeline capacity hasn’t kept pace with demand. THE IMPACT: Grid operator ISO New England warns that fuel insecurity could lead to rolling blackouts by winter 2024-2025.

The debate over pipelines in New England is intensifying as the region’s power grid operator warns of dire scenarios in the future.

Without additional natural gas pipeline capacity, rolling blackouts or other emergency actions will likely be needed by the winter of 2024-2025 to keep the power system operating reliably, according to a Jan. 17 report from ISO New England, the region’s electrical grid operator.

Fuel security is a growing concern in New England. The regional power system is increasingly dependent on natural gas for power generation; the capacity of the region’s natural gas infrastructure is not always adequate to deliver all the gas needed for both heating and power generation during winter; and natural gas is the fuel of choice for a large segment of new power plant proposals,” the report stated.

Over the past several years, New England has become increasingly dependent on natural gas for energy production. Roughly 49 percent of the region’s electricity is produced by natural gas power plants, up from 15 percent in 2000, according to ISO New England. The increased use of natural gas has offset the closure of oil and coal power plants throughout the region. While renewable energy sources have become more widely used in that span, they still account for just 10 percent of New England’s electric energy production.

Due to constrained capacity on the pipelines bringing natural gas into the region, however, natural gas has been subject to volatile price humps during high-demand periods. During the cold snap in early January, the constraints on available supply caused the price of natural gas to spike, prompting energy producers to turn to oil to generate electricity, according to ISO New England.

Against that backdrop, many in the natural gas industry have renewed calls for expanding pipelines in New England. There has also been considerable opposition to new pipelines, including from environmental groups.

“We’ve heard this before,” said Joel Wool, energy and environment advocate with Boston-based Clean Water Action. When it gets cold, the gas industry revs up the PR engines to promote false and destructive solutions, while aggressively lobbying against renewable energy in the Statehouse.”

He said there’s a financial, as well as environmental, component to his opposition to more pipelines. Rather than investing in natural gas infrastructure, he advocates increasing energy efficiency and expanding the use of renewable energy.

“It’s broken logic when people say we’re very reliant on gas so we need more gas,” he said. “When we are overly dependent on something, the idea is promoting other kinds of solutions. The more we get on one single resource, the more risk we’re exposed to and the less control we have over our energy costs.”

The Massachusetts Sierra Club criticized the ISO New England report.

“This report inexplicably underestimates the amount of renewable energy — i.e. solar and wind — that we know will be coming online in coming years. Yet even a report rigged against clean energy shows that New England can affordably and reliably replace most of its old, dirty, dangerous, and uneconomic power plants without spending billions of dollars on unnecessary gas pipelines,” Massachusetts Sierra Club Director Emily Norton said in a statement.

On the opposite side of the issue, proponents of increasing natural gas pipeline capacity say more natural gas is needed to support a system that includes a growing portfolio of renewable sources.

“Until we increase the capacity of existing pipelines that deliver clean, domestic natural gas into New England, we will face a situation that ISO New England continues to warn poses a significant threat to regional electric service reliability,” said Michael Durand, a spokesman from Eversource, one of the region’s largest electric utilities. “We believe in a diversified portfolio to meet the region’s current and future energy needs, which is why we’re working to develop projects that will add offshore wind, hydro and solar power to the regional energy mix. For the foreseeable future, however, increasing the availability of natural gas to power traditional electricity-generating plants is crucial to maintaining electric service reliability, stabilizing prices and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”