During the bitter cold stretch that started right after Christmas and continued into 2018, New England’s power operators had a tough time keeping the juice flowing to homes and businesses throughout the region.
Facing a shortage of natural gas because of a dearth of pipeline capacity, they relied on old oil and coal plants to provide enough electricity.
With oil supplies rapidly running low, the nonprofit ISO New England that’s responsible for ensuring the region’s electricity supply said keeping the whole system up and running proved “extremely challenging” as operators “worked around the clock to keep the power flowing and the grid stable.”
Fortunately, the cold spell broke before the system serving 7.2 million homes and businesses did.
But with more oil, coal and nuclear plants heading for the scrap heap, the future may prove dim.
“Keeping the lights on in New England will become an even more tenuous proposition,” Philip Shapiro, chairman of the ISO New England Board, and Gordon van Welie, its longtime president and chief executive officer, said in an annual report released this month.
What that means is that rolling blackouts during especially heavy use periods are more likely. Those outages “could affect hundreds of thousands of average New England homes at a time,” said one recent regional report.
Facing that challenge is a key reason that New England’s electricity rates are higher than the national average, and why trimming those rates in the years ahead is unlikely.
There’s a potential “for substantial price hikes,” said William Harwood, a Portland energy attorney with nearly four decades of experience.
The supply charge for Central Maine Power customers, for example, rose 18 percent this year, at a time when inflation remains far lower.
Mark Vannoy, the commission’s chairman, said the price increases “are primarily driven by the increase in capacity market clearing prices in New England,” costs locked in by an ISO New England auction three years ago.
In other words, Vannoy said, “the higher prices result from the need for new generating plants to replace plants that were retiring.”
A recent draft fuel security study by ISO New England, spurred by concern about the diminishing availability of old power sources, found many scenarios in which the region’s power grid might wind up unable to provide a constant flow of electricity during the winter.
“The region is currently maintaining a delicate balance that could easily be disrupted” and which faces an accelerating negative trend, the study said.
As it is, the report said, New England’s power system faces an “acute vulnerability” if anything were to happen to disrupt a natural gas pipeline, a nuclear power plant, liquefied natural gas deliveries and more.
While it may seem as if New England’s regional problems shouldn’t have so much impact on Maine — which produces enough power that it exports more than a third of it — the reality is the Pine Tree State’s energy future is tied tightly to the six-state region that makes up ISO New England’s turf.
While in some ways, that future is bright — a growing number of green sources of power don’t contribute as much to climate change — there is also a growing danger the region could come up short in a crisis.
THE SOURCE OF THE DANGER
As the nation shifts ever more of its power production to natural gas, areas such as Maine that can’t tap directly into the shale deposits where extraction is taking place across the country are dependent on an inadequate supply infrastructure.
In the ISO New England’s draft “Operational Fuel-Security Analysis,” experts sought to figure out what the fuel supply for the region is likely to be by the end of 2024. What they found was less than comforting.
“The region is currently maintaining a delicate balance that could easily be disrupted” if anything happened to any of the five key variables — retirements of coal- and oil-fired generators, liquefied natural gas imports, the availability of oil and the means to burn it, the growth of renewable sources of power and imports of electricity.
The worry is that New England’s power system is acutely vulnerable to the loss of any one of a number of key energy sources, especially an outage at a natural gas pipeline compressor station. But officials also fretted about what would happen if the liquefied natural gas import facilities in Massachusetts or Canada had a problem or if the Millstone nuclear power plant in Connecticut ceased to be available.
In those scenarios, the report said, the region would face “frequent energy shortages that would require frequent and long periods of rolling blackouts.”
Even a short outage at any key facility, it said, “would likely create significant system stress.”
The report admitted the outlook is uncertain.
But, the study said, “given the pace of power system transformation and increasing economic pressures on the remaining oil, coal and nuclear power plants,” more of the aging generation plants are likely to be gone by 2024, including all of those that use coal.
New sources in the works won’t make up for the loss of sources that are vanishing, experts said.
“We seem to be at a transition point in the power market in New England,” said Stephen Leahy, the vice president for policy at the Northeast Gas Association.
The study said the region has time to address the issue — most easily done by adding natural gas pipelines beyond those already planned — but there is little buffer if there are delays.
And there doesn’t appear to be a consensus on how to address the issue quickly.
ISO New England said the fuel security report it issued is meant in part “to provide regional policymakers and other stakeholders the information they need” to help figure out “what level of risk the region will tolerate and what steps the region should pursue to mitigate the risk.”
If the issue isn’t dealt with, van Welie and Shapiro said, “the region will face a setback to both future power system reliability and state efforts to transition to clean energy economy-wide, as well as increased energy costs.”
They said ISO New England can, if necessary, seek federal approval to provide “more reliable wintertime fuel arrangements and, if necessary, retain resources essential to grid reliability,” including the aging oil and coal plants that would otherwise be shuttered because of their cost and contributions to rising carbon dioxide levels that add to climate change.
The two ISO New England leaders said that ultimately, though, “it will be up to market participants and state officials to take actions” to increase fuel availability.
“Appropriate investments could include enhancements to natural gas infrastructure or the supply chains for liquefied natural gas and oil; relaxation of rules to allow easier permitting and operation of dual-fuel resources; investments in even more renewable energy and any transmission needed to deliver it; or further measures to significantly reduce demand on the power system or the gas system,” they said.
Some combination of efforts is the most likely solution, they said, along with the recognition that costly infrastructure investments are needed.
Doing nothing, they warned, “will also come with a bill for high energy prices when energy supply is constrained” while simultaneously increasing the risk of higher emissions and lower reliability.
“New England faces tough choices,” the pair warned. They said they expect discussions “to intensify as we dig into this challenge and identify possible solutions.”
BILLS ARE RISING
When the Maine Public Utilities Commission a few months ago approved a double-digit increase in the supply charge for Central Maine Power customers who rely on the standard offer, the panel’s chairman offered an explanation.
Harry Lanphear, administrative director of the Maine PUC, said the delivery side of the charge has been “relatively flat for the last several years.”
But he couldn’t say the same for the supply side of the bill.
Lanphear said an increase of 18 percent in the supply charge was approved by the PUC in November, creating about an 8 percent increase in the overall bill starting Jan. 1 for customers who take the standard offer.
About half of Maine’s residential customers accept the standard offer. Others seek out better deals that can save them money, if they’re careful, a consequence of a deregulation effort that started two decades ago as part of a national trend to offer consumers more options.
Lanphear said the extreme cold that settled on the area from mid-December until mid-January — about 25 percent colder than usual — caused people to use more electricity than usual, which added to the sting of the price hike on monthly bills. More than a few people noticed, complaining loudly.
That spate of frigid weather was a near-perfect demonstration of the problem utility overseers are most concerned about: how to cope with what they call “peak demand.”
It takes more production to provide the electricity to fire everything up on a freezing cold day or one that’s especially hot. Though Maine doesn’t get the same sort of summer surges that states farther south do, it feels the pinch on those days, too, because it shares the same electrical grid.
In recent times, peak demand has often been met by turning to old oil and coal-burning plants that are too dirty and costly to use routinely. But they come in handy when there’s a crunch.
At the same time, what natural gas is available for purchase by electricity generators becomes far more costly. “Spot market prices can go through the roof,” Leahy said.
Though wholesale electricity costs are lower than they were 15 years ago — a consequence largely of more efficiency and more green power — the trend ahead may not be as favorable for consumers.
In a recent report, ISO New England said market prices may need to reflect the need to deal with looming fuel constraints.
“This will mean higher prices in the energy and capacity markets, as the marketplace adjusts to reflect power resources’ added costs and the price for keeping the lights on,” the report said.
If the market alone can’t deal with the problem — which experts say it probably can’t do on its own — then steps that officials will need to take, from keeping aging resources online to calling on new resources, are likely to increase prices.
By 2021, New England will have lost about 16 percent of the generating capacity it had as recently as 2013, according to ISO New England.
Though wind power and natural gas-fired plants are likely to replace the lost capacity over time, the overall impact is to make the region more dependent on natural gas, a fuel it gets only through a vulnerable pipeline system or in liquid form delivered by ship.
The old coal- and oil-fired plants face rising costs for many reasons, including environmental regulations, that make it tough for them to compete with “newer, faster generators that run on cleaner fuel supplies,” regional power officials said.
Moreover, they said, “These older plants can require up to 24 hours to reach full power production, making it difficult for ISO operators to rely on them when system conditions are tight. Their age and lack of regular operation can also sometimes lead to mechanical problems.”
The closing of nuclear power plants is also making a difference, especially the shutdown of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Station in 2014 that delivered 604 megawatts daily to the system.
THE IMPACT OF GREEN ENERGY
There are three more alternatives that have been growing quickly: wind, solar and hydro power.
Gov. Paul LePage has long made no secret that he would like to see Maine buy power from Hydro-Quebec, a supplier that uses dams constructed near the Hudson Bay to generate huge volumes of electricity, much of it sold to New York.
Environmentalists, though, are pushing more solar and wind capacity in Maine, which is already a leader in the East in generating electricity from wind.
There are many conflicting arguments that rage about the issue and its impact on consumers’ bottom lines, but most everyone agrees that in one way or another, a growing reliance on cleaner, greener electricity is part of the long-term solution to both supply and an improved climate outlook.
Both Harwood and Leahy said that green sources are going to be an ever more important source of electricity supply.
As it is, wind power already provides the equivalent of two Vermont Yankee plants to the region’s electricity, delivering more than 1,300 megawatts daily. It’s expected to rise to 8,600 megawatts as more projects come to fruition, mostly in northern Maine and offshore in southern New England.
Solar is expected to deliver a bit more than half as much juice when planned projects are finish.
All of it has helped make Maine the greenest state east of the Mississippi River in terms of producing the power it needs.
But unless there’s more than planned, renewable sources may still not be enough by 2024 if the regional planners are accurate.
FACING THE POWER PINCH
Aging plants don’t matter too much during normal weather, but have long served as the supplier of last resort when demand peaks and extra juice is needed.
For example, though oil and coal make up only a tiny fraction of daily needs throughout the region, including Maine, one cold day in February 2015, when extra power was needed, coal-fired plants provided 11 percent of it and oil-fired plants added 21 percent of the total. Between them, they covered a third of the region’s electricity needs that day, ISO New England figures show.
The problem with the shift toward more natural gas use is that the supply is so tight.
When the weather turns colder, the suppliers have to funnel more of what they have to customers whose own needs increase. Any homeowner with gas can immediately understand that more gas is required for heat when the thermometer dips.
For electricity suppliers, that can create a pinch because they also need more supply, but there’s little or no capacity to squeeze more natural gas use when demand is so high.
As ISO New England put it, during the coldest weeks of the year, the “natural gas delivery infrastructure can’t meet all the demand for natural gas for both home heating and power generation. As a result, natural-gas-fired power plants — which typically buy pipeline capacity released by local gas utilities on the secondary market — may not be able to access natural gas.”
Harwood said when that happens, power overseers often pay big companies to shut down or delay use until there’s more electricity available, a cheaper option than trying to find fuel in a tight market. It helps free up demand, he said.
To get more natural gas to the region requires more pipelines or more deliveries by ship, both requiring infrastructure investments beyond anything eyed today.
In almost every scenario the regional power overseers looked at, trouble looms.
The bottom line, they said, is that without more fuel from somewhere for cold winter days, “the region’s power plants would be unable to generate all the electricity needed to meet demand.”
Harwood said that may be a little alarmist, but it has some truth to it.
HOW IT GOT THIS WAY
Before deregulation, power companies used to factor in the necessity of having a reliable supply of electricity even on the toughest winter days. They built that into the prices as they created a diversified supply system, Harwood said.
That meant keeping the lights on in the long run was part of their plans.
Now, though, suppliers in a deregulated market are subject to Wall Street investors who “pick a winner and they go with that winner” in a bid to make money over a shorter time span, Harwood said. They’re not responsible for ensuring supply years down the road.
As a result, power suppliers are leaning on natural gas, which has become a cheap and easy fuel that is also environmentally sounder than oil and coal. It now makes up half the market for electricity generation in the region.
FIXING THE PROBLEM
Maine has one solution that so far hasn’t taken off.
Five years ago, Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature agreed that Maine consumers should pay more to help put in place the pipeline infrastructure that would ensure supplies of natural gas.
The idea was to have New Englanders cough up enough extra cash to make sure they didn’t run short of power on cold days, a step that Harwood hailed. LePage said it would ensure the state didn’t shut down for three months every year.
But the plan flopped when a Massachusetts court said it would be illegal to charge consumers extra there, effectively killing the idea of a regional approach to bolstering the infrastructure needed.
So more capacity would help, whether it involves more and better pipelines or perhaps more liquid natural gas shipped in from overseas.
More solar and wind, too, would make a difference. It just may not happen fast enough.
“The new clean energy supply just isn’t here yet,” Leahy said.
Harwood said that adding more wind and solar takes time. He said offshore wind looks to have potential for Maine and solar does, too, as its cost diminishes.
But on a cold winter day, it’s going to be uncertain for quite a while.
“The question is: Do we have enough fuel?” Harwood said.
The sources of power for electricity generation have been changing (ISO New England)
Wyman Station on Cousins Island in Yarmouth is the biggest oil-fired plant in Maine. The future of the aging plant is unclear, but it and other oil- and coal-fired plants are still needed in the Northeast as other capacity is taken offline, making the electrical grid more susceptible. (Portland Press Herald file photo)
Real-time demand for electricity in each of the six New England states in October 2017. (New England Power Pool)
These are the natural gas and oil pipelines serving the Northeast. Almost all are natural gas lines. An oil pipeline that stretches from Montreal into Maine is also a natural gas pipeline that runs through the entire state from north to south, delivering gas from Canada. (U.S. Energy Information Administration)
Maine ranked 10th in the country in November 2017 for its average electricity rate, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Office. The other five New England states are even more expensive.
Sources of electricity in Maine (Maine Public Utilities Commission)
Electrical costs are expected to rise. (ISO New England)
Electricity demand has slowed as homes and businesses become more efficient. (ISO New England)