New England’s sprawling bulk power grid is reliable, robust, and well-coordinated, but new trends, including the shift in demand from nuclear power and traditional fossil fuels to natural gas and renewable resources, are exposing significant vulnerabilities, regional energy officials said Wednesday.
Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of nonprofit transmission organization ISO New England, which oversees the region’s electric power system, highlighted energy security as the top risk for the area in an annual “state of the grid” report.
The system can make, manage, and move power where it’s needed, van Welie said, but supply represents a growing problem now that just-in-time and weather-dependent delivery methods are beginning to prevail over large, non-gas-fired generation.
“New England has enough capacity,” he said. “The concern is whether there will be enough fuel for all those power plants to generate electricity, whether their fuel is natural gas, oil, wind, or sun.”
In the past, coal, nuclear, and oil-based generation afforded a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to generate power. And, due to the nature of those resources, storage onsite was not a significant obstacle, meaning the grid rarely had serious supply issues even in extreme weather.
But policymakers are now being forced to grapple with climate change and the detrimental effects of coal and oil on the environment. In response, many states are throwing their support behind solar power, hydroelectric generation, and offshore wind farms. Between Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, for example, ISO New England estimates that legislative mandates call for about 5,600 megawatts of hydropower, wind, and battery storage.
Even nuclear power generation — which produces no carbon — is falling as wholesale energy prices drop, rendering those facilities financially unsustainable without the proper investment and modernization.
Between 2013 and 2022, officials said, plants representing more than 5,200 megawatts of coal, oil, and nuclear energy will have been retired.
While this realignment is well intentioned, van Welie said, it’s having unintended effects. Some renewable forms of energy, like solar, are dependent on the weather and are difficult to store. Others, like the comparatively cleaner-burning natural gas, have to be delivered to power plants, and any delivery snags could create problems for consumers down the line.
Moreover, the market simply wasn’t designed for a system where state incentives favor certain forms of energy over others, leading to uncertainty about competition and pricing, van Welie said.
Though ISO New England has limited jurisdiction in resolving the issues that could arise from supply challenges, van Welie said the operator is working to create a better-adapted system that will reward power suppliers for storing energy when it is not needed in anticipation of times when it will be.
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