New England Facing A Winter Energy Crisis That Was Largely Preventable

While New England’s power grid operator predicted it would have enough energy supplies to meet demand this winter, it admitted there could be problems if record-low temperatures set in.

“While New England has adequate capacity resources to meet projected demand, a continuing concern involves the availability of fuel for those power plants to generate electricity when needed,” grid operator ISO New England reported in November.

“During extremely cold weather, natural gas pipeline constraints limit the availability of fuel for natural-gas-fired power plants,” the grid operator noted.

That’s exactly what is happening right now.

Unrelenting cold since late December has caused energy demand to spike, pushing up prices and straining supplies. New England power companies are struggling to keep up with demand.

New England’s current energy woes are the result of years of state and federal policies aimed at closing coal and oil-fired power plants, largely as part of the region’s effort to fight global warming.

In 2000, New England got about 18 percent of its electricity from coal plants. Now, the region gets around three percent — though it’s jumped to six percent in the recent cold snap.

The Brayton Point Power Station, New England’s largest coal plant, shut down over the summer. Plant operators decided to close the plant in 2013 after putting in expensive cooling towers to cut pollution.

Most of the shuttered capacity has been replaced by natural gas, but pipeline capacity has not kept up with demands from power plants.

When temperatures drop, natural gas demand spikes as residents clamor to stay warm. But, like in 2014, New England’s pipeline capacity hasn’t expanded enough to fully meet demand during such cold snaps.

Environmentalists have contributed to the problem by protesting large pipeline projects power operators wanted to increase gas deliveries. Things got more complicated when the  Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled companies could not enter into long-term gas contracts and pass those costs onto consumers.

The court ruling killed the planned $3 billion Access Northeast pipeline project. The project would have expanded an existing New England pipeline and was expected to save customers $1 billion a year.

A second $3 billion pipeline plan, the Northeast Energy Direct project, was mothballed in 2016 amid stiff political resistance.

Gas supply constraints have made New England the world’s most expensive power market. Some power plants have taken to burning oil to generate power, but supplies are running low. Federal air quality regulations are also keeping power plants from burning more fuel.

“The region’s natural gas delivery infrastructure has expanded only incrementally, while reliance on natural gas as the predominant fuel for both power generation and heating continues to grow,” the ISO reported in its winter outlook, which was released at the end of November.

“Further, the retirement of a 1,500 MW coal- and oil-fired power plant in May has removed a facility with stored fuel that helped meet demand when natural gas plants were unavailable.”

The ISO identified 4,000 megawatts of natural gas power capacity “at risk of not being able to get fuel when needed.”

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