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Grid chief warns of future power problems

The chief executive of New England’s power grid manager warned Tuesday that a growing regional dependence on natural gas, combined with supply constraints, is threatening its ability to guarantee electricity whenever and wherever it’s needed.

Gordon van Welie of ISO New England testified in Washington, D.C., before a House subcommittee that “the status quo is unsustainable.”

Van Welie said the region now gets just more than half its power from natural gas and nearly a third from nuclear power. That’s a shift during the last decade from more reliance on oil and coal sources, which have been squeezed out by cheaper gas and tight environmental rules.

A switch to lower-cost, lower-emission natural gas – which also is widely used regionally for heat – has major economic and environmental benefits, he said. But it’s straining the existing pipeline infrastructure, which isn’t sufficient to allow New England full access to abundant gas supplies from the west and south.

The effect of the bottleneck was seen this winter in a price increase. Van Welie noted that in late January, New England was paying more than eight times what other regions were paying for natural gas, even though temperatures weren’t especially low and power demand wasn’t high.

“Wholesale electricity prices rose significantly during this period because of physical constraints moving the lowest-priced natural gas into New England,” he said, according to prepared remarks.

A massive storm in February, which was accompanied by widespread power outages, also highlighted problems, he said.

Van Welie said at one point, 6,000 megawatts of electricity – about a fifth of the region’s total capacity – wasn’t available, in part because gas generators couldn’t find fuel.

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