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Grid able to generate ample electricity this winter, but don’t expect bills to go down

  • Merrimack Station coal-fired power plant in Bow is shown in January 2014.  AP file



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

There are enough power plants, power lines and systems in place to provide all the electricity that New England will need this winter, according to the organization that operates the six-state electric grid.

ISO-New England said Wednesday the grid can meet demand, which is expected to peak at 21,057 megawatts under extreme temperatures. Far more power than that is available, the group said: A total of 34,415 megawatts, which far exceeds the all-time record for peak electricity demand.

However, ISO-NE said in its annual pre-winter assessment, as many as 4,500 megawatts of electricity comes from plants that burn natural gas are “at risk of not being able to get fuel when needed,” because so much gas is burned for heat in the winter.

About one-ninth of New England’s electricity demand usually comes from within New Hampshire. A megawatt is enough electricity for between 600 and 1,000 homes.

Despite the projected ample supply, ratepayers usually see higher rates in the winter because the cost of buying fuel tends to rise. Eversource’s energy rate, which changes every six months, is 19 percent higher for the winter period through February than it was in the previous six months.

New England has come close to having power shortages in past winters when long cold snaps have coincided with reductions in how much electricity is being generated. Last winter, for example, the Pilgrim Station nuclear plant in Massachusetts shut during two weeks of extreme cold because of problems with the power lines connecting it to the grid, reducing total generation to the point that it almost could not meet demand.

ISO-NE said that as a result of these problems it has instituted new market and system operations. One will forecast the region’s available energy supplies for the following 21 days, and the other will provide a market mechanism designed to help ensure that limited fuel supplies are used when they are most valuable for system reliability and cost effectiveness.

This also marks the first winter under new pay-for-performance-capacity rules, which went into effect June 1. The rules provide bonus payments and financial penalties to power plants and other resource owners, to ensure they can meet their obligations – either to provide all the electricity that they said they could, or to reduce their power needs when asked by doing such things as turning off machinery.

Coping with winter extremes is made easier because total energy consumption, as well as peak demand, have remained flat in New England in recent years. That is due partly to economic changes but ISO-NE said it largely a result of increased energy-efficiency measures and growing amounts of solar photovoltaic systems. ISO-NE says its forecasts take into account a full 2,541 MW in energy savings from efficiency measures bought through what is known as the Forward Capacity Market.

As for solar power, ISO-NE notes that daily electricity demand usually hits its peak in winter after the sun has set, reducing the value of photovoltaic systems for coping with emergency situations.

The all-time winter peak demand in New England occurred in January 2004, at 22,818 megawatts. The all-time peak demand came in August 2006, at 28,130 megawatts.

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