Editorial: How to fight power plant construction

  • Quinlan

Published: 12/9/2016 3:05:08 AM

This week, the Monitor’s editorial board had a sobering meeting with Bill Quinlan, president of Eversource NH, the state’s major electricity supplier.

Worrying about the state’s power needs and how to meet them is Quinlan’s job. It isn’t an easy one.

Large power plants that provide a big chunk of the region’s electricity have been retired or will be soon. The region will lose 10 to 12 percent of its power supply in the next two years and up to 30 percent in the next five years, according to ISO New England, which runs the region’s power grid. ISO calls the situation “precarious.”

The region once had nine nuclear power plants. It will soon be down to two. All but two of its coal-fired plants are slated to close.

Preventing a price spike and near brownout like the one that occurred three winters ago will require states to cooperate, investors to invest and regulators to grant approval. But ratepayers can help. Use less power and there will be less of a need to build new power plants.

The cheapest watt of electricity is the one you don’t use. Customers should contact their local utility and arrange to have a free energy audit to pinpoint waste. They should look into programs that subsidize the cost of increasing energy efficiency.

Some ratepayers, say those with a south-facing roof, may find that it makes sense to invest in solar panels or contact a company that installs them for free in exchange for a big slice of the savings on electric bills.

Electricity, once promised to be too cheap to meter, has become expensive. The Public Utilities Commission says an average household that uses 500 kilowatts per month pays Unitil $94.78, the New Hampshire Electric Co-op $99.78, Eversource $85.47 and National Grid $80.58. Replacing incandescent or compact fluorescent lighbulbs with LEDs, replacing old refrigerators and installing power strips to reduce “phantom loads” will reduce those bills.

Many electric appliances, microwaves, audio systems, TVs, cable boxes and computer equipment continue to use electricity even when turned off. Households can save an estimated $100 to $200 per year by installing power strips and turning them off when the devices and appliances aren’t in use.

Unlike New Hampshire, Massachusetts has been growing rapidly with new developments and office buildings springing up almost overnight. Yet that state’s electric utility demand has not grown because of a massive investment in conservation and greatly expanded use of solar power, Quinlan said. Such measures can’t make up for the loss of major power plants, but they can help.

Three years ago, the governors of the six New England states met to find a solution to the inadequacy of the region’s natural gas infrastructure. At least three major pipeline proposals were developed. Two are now dead and one is tenuous.

Electricity prices, always high in New England, have been relatively stable for the last two years. In the short term they’re expected to remain stable – barring, that is, something that slows or stops the flow of natural gas into New England. Then all bets are off and bills will skyrocket, as they did during the frigid winter three years ago.

Pipelines couldn’t transmit enough gas to heat homes and fire power plants, and home heating comes first. Natural gas prices exploded, electric bills went up, jobs were lost and manufacturers started looking south.

That could easily happen again.

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