‘How do you buy clean power?’ and other questions electrify Science Cafe

  • The Merrimack Station power plant in Bow is seen at dusk on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor file) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Electricity is complicated and the system in New England is even more complicated, so I’m always ready to latch onto a simple metaphor that will help me understand.

Happily, it seems one of my favorite metaphors – “The New England power grid is like a great big bathtub full of electricity!” – is pretty accurate.

“We have spent billions and billions of dollars on transmission upgrades in New England over the past decade, and we have all but eliminated transmission congestion and constraint. So it really is like a bathtub now,” said Don Kreis, the state’s consumer advocate and a longtime observer of electricity’s regulatory and technical smorgasbord in New England.

As evidence, Kreis points to the wholesale price of electricity, which changes every five minutes.

“Look at the real-time market price of electricity around the region,” he said. “Most of the time it is all very similar, all around New England. ... Years ago, that wasn’t the case.”

In other words, pretty much any New England producer of electricity connected to the grid, whether it’s Seabrook Station or your neighbor’s rooftop solar panels that he insists on talking about every single time you see him, pours electrons into one gigantic pool.

And any user of electricity – whether it’s me using it to light up the computer screen I’m staring at as I write this or your town’s power-hungry sewage treatment plant – pulls its electrons from that same pool. That’s why we mostly pay the same wholesale price. (Our retail price is affected by state- and company-specific actions like taxes and transmission costs.)

Simple, yes, but it raises a question: Why is Massachusetts willing to pay more for “clean” electricity in a giant program that is fueling a scramble for transmission projects – including one you may have heard of, called Northern Pass – when they will be using the same electricity that everybody else does?

Good question, and you can ask it tonight at Science Cafe Concord, where the topic will be all the changes facing the once-stodgy power grid. There are developments coming from technology (solar panels! distributed energy!), governance (deregulation! decoupling!) and the entire economy (we’re making more stuff while using less power!), so there will be no shortage of things to talk about.

Bring your questions. As always it starts 6 p.m. in The Draft Sports Bar in Concord, and it’s free.

Now back to my question.

In 2008, Massachusetts set the goal of cutting state carbon emissions 25 percent by 2020. A big part of this is encouraging energy producers to switch from fossil-fuel plants to plants powered by wind, solar and hydro.

One method would be for governments to mandate the switch – this is what China is doing, with questionable success – but the more acceptable method in a capitalist society is to goose the market so private companies can make more money doing what you want them to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do.

Hence the Clean Energy Plan, under which Massachusetts will sign 20-year contracts to buy power from wind, solar and hydro producers at favorable rates. The state is pondering scores of submissions from different companies – including two transmission projects running through New Hampshire: Northern Pass and Granite State Power Link – and will announce its purchases in January.

This plan has led to a scramble among developers, yielding multiple plans to build power lines carrying Hydro-Quebec power down into New England.

But it brings me back to the bathtub issue: If everybody is drawing from the same pool of electrons, how can Massachusetts make sure it’s actually getting electricity from carbon-free sources rather than electricity from, say, the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow?

They can’t, Kreis said – but that’s not the point.

“Electricity takes the path of least resistance. So the source depends at any time where you are, where the power being generated is – and it’s all flowing around the system in a really unpredictable way,” he said.

Even if you live near Merrimack Station, in fact, you might actually be using carbon-free electricity when you turn on the TV.

“If your house right is next door to Merrimack Station and on the other side of your house was another house with a bunch of solar panels – if it’s sunny, they’re feeding their surplus output right into the network you’re on, so you are getting it directly from them,” he said.

By contrast, Merrimack Station sends its electricity into the bulk power system via a substation that changes the voltage, so its electrons may actually be flowing into houses miles and miles away.

But doesn’t that uncertainty kill off the whole idea of paying more for clean electricity?

No, Kreis said, because the program will, if I may return to my metaphor, help clean up all the water in the whole New England bathtub.

“The company that you have paid to supply the electricity has undertaken a legal obligation to contribute that little bit to the bathtub,” Kreis said.

This makes electricity produced from carbon-free sources more competitive than electricity produced by fossil fuels, so any given electron on the grid is more likely to have come from a clean source than from a dirty one. Overall, carbon emissions from power production should fall.

“The renewable procurements in Massachusetts, they make a huge difference,” Kreis said. “You’d better believe that the people who generate electricity are paying attention.”

Massachusetts is such a regional economic force – about 40 percent of the electricity used in the six-state area is used in the Bay State – that their actions affect all of us. There is debate about exactly how New Hampshire will be affected: whether the Massachusetts push will raise rates or lower rates, make us money or cost us money, lead to unnecessary construction or help us fight climate change.

Science Cafe won’t get into the economic or public policy issues – as moderator, I reserve the right to halt any and all arguments about the merits of Northern Pass – but there’s still plenty of really interesting stuff to talk about. So come join us tonight as we splash around in the bathtub.

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



What: Science Cafe Concord, discussing the status and future of the New England power grid. Panelists: Michael Mooiman, associate professor at Franklin Pierce University and longtime observer of NH energy system. Chris Skoglund, Climate & Energy Program Manager with the NH Department of Environmental Services (NHDES), whose work is broadly focused on climate and energy-planning initiatives at the state and local level. James Brennan, director of finance at the New Hampshire Office of Consumer Advocate. Free and open to all.

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14,

Where: The Draft Sports Bar, 67 S. Main St., Concord.

For more information: ScienceCafeNH.org.