New England’s “tenuous” ability to affordably and cleanly keep the lights on

To say that New England’s energy future is muddled is an understatement. Only 24 hours ago, during an annual press briefing, the president and CEO of regional grid operator ISO New England sounded a cautionary note about future energy supplies.

“As more oil, coal and nuclear plants seeks to retire in the coming years, keeping the lights on could become even more tenuous,” Gordon van Welie told reporters.

To put that statement in context, the region will have lost more than 4,600 megawatts of electric generating capacity between 2013 and 2021. That equates to about 16 percent of ISO New England’s current generating capacity. Several thousand more megawatts of generating capacity are deemed to be at risk.

It was just a few weeks ago that ISO New England released its Operational Fuel-Security Analysis, a study assessing whether possible future resource combinations would have enough fuel to ensure bulk power system reliability throughout an entire winter. “The results indicate that maintaining reliability is likely to become more challenging, especially if current power system trends continue,” the grid operator determined.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve New England’s energy infrastructure are meeting obstacles.

For example, the Northern Pass proposal, a 192-mile transmission line project to bring 1,090 megawatts of power from Hydro-Quebec’s hydroelectric plants in Canada to New Hampshire and the rest of the region, suffered a major setback on Feb. 1 when a state Site Evaluation Committee unanimously rejected the Northern Pass application. Northern Pass officials today are outlining conditions they believe could swing the Evaluation Committee in favor of the proposal, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.

While the share of electricity New Englanders receive from renewable energy sources has increased in recent years (though most new generation has come from natural gas-fired power plants), the push to increase renewables significantly has hardly been a slam dunk. The organization Friends of Maine’s Mountains epitomizes the opposition that many wind projects encounter.

To observers outside New England, the region’s steps to address its energy challenges effectively will be at least a curiosity. To those within New England, particularly paying customers, there’s much more at stake.

Referencing the frigid temperatures that gripped much of the nation at the start of the new year, van Welie noted, “Wholesale electricity costs for that two-week cold spell total about $990 million, or about four times more than the $243 million incurred during the same two-week period last year.”

Call it the cost of muddling.

February 28, 2018

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