New England has enough electricity production for the winter, although natural gas supplies raise concern

Monitor staff
Published: 12/5/2016 1:46:41 PM

The organization that runs New England’s power grid said electricity supplies should be sufficient to meet demand this winter, but just in case it will pay power plants that burn oil or liquified natural gas so they will stock up on fuel in advance. 

ISO New England, the operator of the region’s power system, said in a release Monday that it has implemented what it calls the Winter Reliability Program to “help protect overall grid reliability.”

The program gives financial incentives to power plants that burn oil or natural gas so they will buy and store fuel, enabling them to step in if gas-fired power plants can’t get enough natural gas during a cold snap, or if the spot price of the gas climbs so high that they can’t afford it.

The program was created after a cold snap three winters ago pushed New England close to brownouts when plants that burn fuels other than gas didn’t have supplies on hand. The dominance of cheap gas-fired electricity has made it too expensive to store oil and other fuels, which might only be needed for a few days each winter.

Overall, however, supplies of power production is plentiful.

In its annual winter prediction released Monday, ISO-NE said at least 31,000 megawatts of electricity generation is available in the six-state region, far more than the 22,000 megawatt of demand forecast even if “extreme winter weather” hits. A megawatt, or 1,000 kilowatts, is power needed to run roughly 1,000 homes.

There are complications, however, including 3,450 megawatts of gas-fired power plants that ISO-NE says are “at risk of not being able to get fuel when needed” because too much of the gas brought in via pipelines is being used for heating.

Further, ISO-NE said, “New England has relied on (ocean) cargoes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in recent winters, but these LNG tankers follow global market spot prices and may elect to go elsewhere, depending on price.”

The region’s dependence on gas for electricity production is unlikely to improve, since next May the 1,500 megawatts Brayton Point Power Station, which burns coal, will close. Consistent with a national trend, it will be replaced “primarily by new gas-fired generation, and no additional infrastructure to deliver or store natural gas is currently being developed,” the organization said.

Approximately 44 percent, or about 14,850 megawatts, of the generating capacity in New England uses natural gas as its primary fuel, and natural gas generated 49 percent of the region’s power in 2015.

The peak electricity demand last winter was 19,545 megawatts Feb. 14, 2016, from 6 to 7 p.m. The all-time winter peak for New England was 22,818 megawatts on Jan. 15, 2004.

The all-time peak demand was 28,130 megawatts on Aug. 2, 2006 – reflecting how summer power usage is now much higher than winter usage as air conditioning has become a major electricity drain in New England.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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