“The challenges to grid reliability are not a question of if they will arise, but of when—and when is now.” – Gordon Van Weile, ISO-New England CEO
The old saying goes, “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” A report released this week by the region’s energy grid operator finds that New England is indeed in a hole, and we need to find a way out.
The 2014 Regional Electricity Outlook (REO) from ISO-New England examines the many complicated factors that have created volatility in the region. Electricity supply challenges like a dependency on natural gas, retiring power plants, insufficient transmission, and the further integration of renewable energy are some of the problems New England must solve. ISO-New England CEO Gordon Van Weile writes, “…in 2014, we find these tightly interrelated challenges have become reality, and they are accelerating.”
The ISO has said the region needs several new power producers to come on line in the next few years, but because the group is “fuel neutral,” it does not advocate for one energy project over another. It does, however, continually assess the region’s energy markets so lawmakers can set necessary policy, and power generators and developers can present solutions. The 2014 REO points out New England’s energy challenges, but also notes that the solutions are complicated and the problems won’t be solved by focusing on one source of energy.
More than half of the region’s electricity currently comes from power plants that run on natural gas. That dependency, as we’ve written about quite a lot in recent months, puts New England at risk for short supply and high prices during periods of extreme cold. Yet 55% of the new generation proposals presented to the ISO as of January are natural gas (40% are wind and the remaining 5% are other renewable resources).
Up to a quarter of the region’s generation capacity is at risk of retiring by the end of the decade. “…the potential magnitude of retirements over a relatively short timeframe poses a serious reliability challenge to the region,” the report finds. “It reinforces New England’s dependence on natural gas and weakens the ability to weather operational issues caused by the lack of availability of gas generators.”
Van Weile predicts New England’s retiring power plants will be replaced with, “a combination of renewable and gas-fired resources.” But that’s where things get tricky. He warns, “More wind and solar power creates a need for fast-starting, flexible resources that can take up the slack when the wind stops or the clouds roll in. New natural gas generators will likely fill this role, with their relative ease of siting and typically lower fuel costs—but this will further strain natural gas pipeline capacity.”
And all of that proposed wind power? To reach the grid, “Billions of dollars in transmission expansion and upgrades would be needed to connect large amounts of remote wind energy to demand centers.”
The 2014 REO shows that the time for solutions to our energy problems is now. It also shows that limiting those solutions won’t solve our problem.
Northern Pass can be a significant contributor to building a reliable, renewable energy future for New England. Hydro power is a renewable energy that is available when the grid needs it. It is not susceptible to pipeline constraints like natural gas, and, in the case of Northern Pass, will reduce our carbon emissions by up to 5 million tons. Furthermore, there is no single project proposed in the region that will supply as much power as Northern Pass: 1,200 megawatts, enough to power a million homes.
Northern Pass should not be the only solution. Diversity is key to ensuring a reliable energy future. As the report puts it, “It will take continued collaboration and a concerted effort from the ISO, the industry, and policymakers to keep our evolving power system on a reliable and efficient course.”