Analysis takes deep look at energy needs

Monitor staff
Saturday, January 20, 2018

New England’s electricity supply is dangerously dependent on natural gas, but buying more natural gas is not the only way to reduce the danger.

This is one of the conclusions of a long-anticipated analysis by ISO-New England, the organization that runs the power grid in the six-state region, which estimates what could happen to our power supply seven years from now.

Officials with the ISO, notably its president, Gordon Van Welie, have for years cautioned that an increasing dependence on natural gas to generate electricity could cause problems during winter, when most of the region’s gas is used for heating.

That concern that has lent indirect support to efforts to build more pipelines bringing gas in from shale fields in New York and Pennsylvania.

The new study, released Thursday, attempts to quantify the concern by estimating what could happen if such pipelines are not built.

It examined 23 scenarios involving different mixes of fuel supplies – for example, if more liquified natural gas is brought in by ship – and different power needs, such as if more energy efficiency requirements are imposed. It also added various obstacles to the mix, some as extreme as the assumed shutdown of a nuclear power plant or the closing of one of the region’s five major gas pipelines for the entire winter. Then it estimated what would happen in each case.

Of the scenarios, 19 say that with rolling blackouts pipes would likely be necessary during a severe winter, while four of the scenarios avoid that problem without any gas pipelines.

“I was afraid this (study) would present only a dire rolling blackout scenario unless we massively commit to big new pipelines – but that isn’t, in fact, what the ISO report says,” said Donald Kreis, New Hampshire’s consumer advocate and a frequent critic of ISO-New England’s support for more gas pipelines.

“I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by the ISO’s operation fuel security analysis. It was reasonably neutrally worded, and thoughtful, with scenarios that represent reasonable policy choices,” Kreis said.

In particular, he pointed to one scenario that assumed a big boost in offshore wind power and distributed solar power, combined with an extra 1,000 megawatts of imported electricity, roughly the amount assumed by Northern Pass and several other transmission proposals that are seeking to be built. That scenario showed no rolling blackouts or other major problems.

The study looks at 23 possible scenarios involving changes in the mix of fuels for producing power in New England as well as ways to reduce power needs, and estimates what might happen during winter seven years from now under each of them, assuming no new major gas pipelines are built. It does assume that existing pipelines may be expanded.

Some of those possibilities are alarming, including worst-case scenarios of rolling blackouts lasting several hours, also known as load shedding, in various parts of New England. Most of the scenarios – 19 of the 23 – “result in fuel shortages requiring load shedding, indicating the trends affecting New England’s power system may intensify the region’s fuel-security risk.”

Kreis, whose job is to make sure that ratepayers are represented when state regulators make decisions about utilities, said he thought the report has two major flaws.

The biggest one, he said, is that it doesn’t estimate how much the various scenarios would cost, and whether they would raise or lower electricity rates.

His other concern is that ISO-New England did not provide the calculations behind its conclusions.

“It’s a black box,” Kreis said. And because ISO-New England is a quasi-governmental entity and not regulated by any state, “I can’t send out discovery requests and get inside their black box. … You have to take their word for it.”

The study is titled “Operational Fuel-Security Analysis.” In New England, fuel security refers to the fact that about half our electricity is produced by power plants which burn natural gas, but during wintertime cold spells most of that gas is used for heating, leading to concerns about how to generate enough electricity.

This bottleneck first came to light during the polar vortex freeze of early 2014, when ISO-New England says we came very close to rolling blackouts after Pilgrim Station nuclear plant in Massachusetts went offline for a few days and electricity imports from Quebec were curtailed.

Since then ISO-New England has instituted rules that encourage gas-powered plants which also burn fuel oil to keep a stock of oil on hand in case of cold snaps. Most of the time almost no oil is burned in New England to produce electricity because it’s too expensive, but for several days during January’s cold weather that changed sharply and oil was one of the most-burned fuels in the region’s power grid.

Kreis noted that Neil Chatterjee, one of five commissioners on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, praised the ISO-New England reports as an example of studying how best to maintain resiliency on the power grid.

The whole study can be read online at iso-ne.com/static-assets/documents/2018/01/20180117_operational_fuel-security_analysis.pdf.