No winter power shortages seen for New England, but pandemic makes forecasting harder

Monitor staff
Published: 12/6/2021 6:13:33 PM
Modified: 12/6/2021 6:13:04 PM

The winter outlook for New England’s electricity grid is mostly the same as it has been for several years: We have more than enough power as long as the weather doesn’t get really bad for really long.

But the 2021-22 winter outlook from ISO-New England, which operates the six-state grid, also contains a pandemic-prompted proviso: And as long as the global supply-chain doesn’t get in the way of fuel supplies.

“In recent years, oil and LNG (liquid natural gas) have filled the gaps when extended periods of very cold weather have constrained natural gas pipeline supplies. Higher prices globally for these fuels, as well as pandemic-related supply chain challenges, could limit their availability in New England if needed to produce electricity this winter. The region would be in a precarious position if an extended cold snap were to develop and these fuels were not available,”  said Gordon van Welie, ISO-New England's president and CEO, as part of the presentation Monday. 

Slightly more than half of the electricity consumed in the six New England states each year is produced by power plants that burn natural gas, most of which comes in pipelines from New York or Canada.

In winter that gas is used for home heating, which gets priority, leading to possible shortages in electricity production during long cold spells.

This issue came to attention during the “polar vortex” around New Year 2017-2018 when NE-ISO says we came close to rolling electricity brownouts because natural gas shortages limited power production.

Changes made since then have helped lessen the threat, including “demand response” programs that get businesses and residents to voluntarily conserve energy on demand, but Texas showed last winter that extreme weather is becoming more common, making it harder to be sure there’s enough of a cushion on hand. Supply-chain issues complicate matters further.

Another complication: “While the pandemic is having a minimal effect on peak demand, the ISO is noticing increased energy use during the day as many former office workers continue to work remotely. This increased energy use could exacerbate fuel supply issues during a prolonged cold snap,” the company said.

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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