Like much of Europe, New England is transforming its power grid, shutting down coal, oil and nuclear power plants, leaving it largely dependent on natural gas to keep the lights on and power its homes.
And, like much of Europe, New England could be headed for an expensive winter.
Despite New England’s goal of limiting carbon emissions, more than half of its electrical power still comes from natural gas that enters the region via pipelines and, unlike anywhere else in the United States, exclusively in liquid form. is imported from abroad. The region’s tightness between the fossil fuel-reliant present and the renewable energy future is always tightening as demand for residential heating rises, but this year the pressure could be significantly higher as the conflict with Russia lowers the costs. of natural gas around the world has increased .
New England could be a mild, US-based case of how much of the world, involuntarily or by choice cut off from enough gas, is taking on the challenges of building out renewables while still relying on energy coming from the ground. unlike the wind and the sun.
Why New England?
New England’s challenges are most acute in the winter, when the need for electricity and heat strains limited gas resources. In a typical winter, the region should be able to keep gas flowing to the homes without compromising the availability of electricity. But in the event of a prolonged cold spell, there could be electrical reliability issues, the regional grid operator, ISO-NE, said in a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
“The region relies heavily on natural gas for both heating homes, which is a huge need for New England in the winter, and generating electricity,” said Caitlin Marquis, director of Advanced Energy Economy. “If you have a very cold day, or if you have longer cold days, you have the problem of not having enough fuel to meet the combined heat and electricity needs of the region. There is a limited infrastructure, and [there’s] not much has been invested in the supply infrastructure for a while.”
“We’re basically going to cross our fingers and hope this winter,” a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission official said at a recent forum it hosted.
Just over half of the electricity produced in New England comes from gas, which is largely imported through a network of pipelines laid out for the most part decades ago. Strangely enough, the remaining gas is imported from abroad.
And while New England has increased investment in renewable energy — with huge investments planned, especially in wind power — it still relies on readily available natural gas. In fact, by far the biggest shift in New England’s power grid has been the increased use of gas, which now accounts for three times as much energy consumption as it was in 2000, while renewables have increased from 8 percent of electricity production to 12 percent of electricity production. . per cent. “In simple terms, renewable energy sources will displace fossil fuels, but the need for balancing energy (and in particular the long-term peak balancing energy need) will increase,” ISO-NE said in its statement. “To make the transition to clean energy a success, the region must continue to have a reliable gas supply for home heating and electricity.”
And New England still hasn’t completely kicked off carbon-intensive forms of power.
While the region has withdrawn thousands of megawatts of coal, plus nuclear and oil plants, sometimes when electricity needs peak, oil-fired power plants are turned on to keep the lights on, using a form of generation that has largely disappeared from a large area. part of the region. the net of the country.
There are plans for more renewable energy but, as Stephen George, an official at ISO-NE, said in a presentation, “Generator exits are on schedule, but new sources are often delayed.”
While New England’s electricity is less carbon-intensive than much of the country’s, its residents also pay some of the highest rates in the country.
New England is not the only region stuck between the future of renewable energy and the existing range of energy sources, including fossil fuels and nuclear power. To deal with stress in its power system, California has backed out by keeping its only remaining nuclear power plant open, installing new state-owned gas-fired power plants, temporarily waiving generator regulations, and continuing to expand its renewable energy generation, installing batteries to store power, and enabling the public and businesses to use less electricity at particularly high usage times.
While the goals of these two regions, which are both rich and committed to aggressive climate targets, are to minimize the use of carbon-emitting energy sources, the demands of harsh weather and reliability have extended the reign of natural gas.
But the way New England maintains its reliance on gas makes it an outlier in the US energy system. The country as a whole has achieved crude energy self-sufficiency and, thanks to massive investments in building infrastructure to literally ship liquefied natural gas (LNG) overseas, has become a major gas exporter – one that the rest of the world is increasingly relying on. trusts to supply the gas that Russia can no longer or no longer supply. Much of the gas that has made the country an energy-producing powerhouse is extracted not far from New England in Pennsylvania. But today, New England’s gas pipelines run from the Canadian border and even Texas and Louisiana.
This is due to opposition both in New England itself and neighboring states, especially New York, to the construction of new pipelines.
New England versus the world
While in the past six years, according to data from the Energy Department, the bulk of gas exports went to East Asia, in June the three largest export destinations were France, the Netherlands and Spain. In the past 12 months, the United States has exported 300 billion cubic feet of gas while importing just 30 billion (not counting gas imports to Puerto Rico), the vast majority of which went through an import terminal in Everett, Massachusetts. New England’s gas imports are complicated by the fact that shipments must come from overseas, thanks to the Jones Act, which requires shipping within the United States to be on US-flagged and US-made vessels, which LNG industry does not use it.
At the import terminals where LNG arrives in the northeast, the average price for the gas is three times higher than at the export terminals, largely on the Gulf Coast.
In fact, the rest of the country is adequately served with gas that can’t get through the pipeline system anywhere else, while New England has to enter the global market to get the gas it needs to keep the lights on and homes warm. This is then reflected in the electricity bill, which is already high and starting to rise across the region.
“If we want a shipment full of LNG to come to Boston, we’ll have to outsmart Europe,” said Meredith Angwin, energy analyst and author of “Shorting the Grid.”
“New England is paying European prices for LNG,” Ira Joseph, an energy analyst, told Grid. “If there were a pipeline from Marcellus to New England, New England would pay prices equal to Marcellus Utica’s area plus transit, [but] that is not the case.”
According to the Energy Information Administration, LNG could account for up to a third of the region’s total natural gas supply. New England pays for the privilege, with natural gas prices sometimes being five times higher in New England than the US reference price in Louisiana.
“Even with the successful development of extensive offshore and onshore wind and solar power in New England, the region will continue to rely on resources with the operational flexibility to balance and stop this variable renewable generation to maintain reliability.” Today, natural gas generation offers this flexibility, and in the future this could also include zero-carbon energy storage technologies,” said ISO-NE in the letter to Granholm.
As in Europe, when New England doesn’t have enough gas to supply both electricity and home heating, it often turns to more polluting and carbon-intensive forms of energy, including oil, to produce electricity. Last winter, New England burned most of the oil it had in a decade to generate electricity.
For environmentalists and green energy advocates, the current situation is not an indictment of their efforts to limit or prevent new fossil fuel infrastructure, but proof that New England must redouble its efforts to generate and store energy sustainably.
“We have the system that we have, and we have to make it through the coming winter with the resources we have. We must not lose sight of the longer term needs to move from natural gas to more renewables, energy storage, build out transmission infrastructure to keep us away from this annual cycle of worrying about the coming winter and how we’re going to make it,” said Marquis.
A coalition of environmental groups pointed to Texas winter storm Uri, where the state was plagued by devastating power outages, in part due to the unavailability of natural gas, as a sign that gas isn’t always as available when it’s marketed.
“The solution is not to bet good money on bad by building more fossil fuels or expensive pipelines that will never pay off, but instead to invest in clean solutions that make the region’s electrical system more reliable while reducing emissions. causing climate change,” the coalition of groups said.
For them, the answer to New England’s electricity problems should be to invest more in the near term in demand response and demand management systems, which can reduce the amount of electricity needed from the grid during times of high consumption, while investing in new renewable ones. energy and storage capacity to eventually replace much of the role that gas currently plays.
“If they are called upon to immediately reduce their demand,” said June Tierney, a Vermont energy officer, “they will respond.”
Either way, New England can face a mild or even average winter and make it. But the adequacy problem is likely to remain.
“Until the war in Ukraine, most of the articles about the grid were about the grid we could have,” Angwin said, “People don’t know the limitations of the grid we have, people are waking up now.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for editing this article.