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Challenging the status quo on electricity, heating

Two top officials with the Conservation Law Foundation say the region’s power grid operator and the state’s utilities are in some ways part of the problem instead of the solution to dealing with climate change. 

Greg Cunningham, the vice president and director of CLF’s clean energy and climate change program, and Caitlin Peale Sloan, the vice president for Massachusetts, said on The Codcast that they are concerned the institutions that should be leading the fight against climate change are not doing so. 

Cunningham’s focus is on ISO-New England, the region’s power grid operator headed by Gordon van Welie. Van Welie was a guest on The Codcast two weeks ago and his focus was on the vulnerability of the power grid, the potential for rolling blackouts, and the continued need for natural gas as a backup fuel.

“It’s frustrating needless to say for us to sit here in 2022 and hear the litany of problems and concerns repeated over and over again from the entity that was designed to be central around fixing them,” Cunningham said. “Gordon van Welie has a substantial pedestal from which to speak and many people listen when he does. There’s an unfortunate tendency to use fear-mongering and the risk of rolling blackouts and all of the bad things that may happen if we don’t address these issues rather than identifying for us how we’re going to solve these problems.” 

ISO-New England hasn’t yet found a way to incorporate the clean energy New England needs into the region’s wholesale electricity markets. Van Welie is trying to buy more time to find a solution by asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve an extension, with a few tweaks, of the existing, flawed regulatory system. He is facing pushback from Attorney General Maura Healey and others who feel the status quo is not acceptable.

Sloan is equally concerned about National Grid’s proposal to decarbonize the way we heat homes and buildings by keeping the existing system of pipes in place and swapping out natural gas for renewable natural gas and green hydrogen. She says pumping a different form of methane through a leaking pipe system doesn’t work for her.

“My reaction to any of our gas utilities who talk about essentially keeping their current business models and swapping in alternative fuels is that that’s just categorically not a decarbonization plan,” she said. 

Cunningham said he has the same reaction to ISO-New England’s continued reliance on natural gas. “To identify gas and the need to bring more gas into the region as part of the solution, feels, as Caitlin was saying about the utilities, it’s just a justification for continuing to do business as usual, which is no plan at all,” he said. 

Sloan said Massachusetts energy policy has been stalled in place for most of the last eight years with the exception of offshore wind procurements. She said the Baker administration’s push to wean solar companies off of subsidies “is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.”

Cunningham said the calls by the two Democratic candidates for governor — Healey and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz — for the power grid to be fueled by clean, renewable energy by 2030 are not unrealistic. 

“Is it feasible? Yes, it’s absolutely feasible from a technical and physics perspective,” he said. “I think the question is how much will it cost.” 

Neither Cunningham nor Sloan see a need to blow up the current regulatory framework, but they say time is running short. “I don’t think we’re advocating for blowing it up now, but I can tell you that if change doesn’t happen soon it’s going to blow up,” Cunningham said.

The air traffic controller of electricity

Gordon van Welie, the president and CEO of ISO-New England, says there are four pillars that support the regional power grid his organization oversees, and all four are showing signs of stress.

Pillar number one is renewable energy. With clean electricity the key to decarbonizing the transportation and heating sectors, van Welie says New England needs to produce or procure a lot more renewable energy. “It’s clear we’re not going fast enough,” he said on The Codcast.

Pillar number two is transmission, the ability to move electricity from where it is produced to where it is needed. Van Welie said transmission is adequate at the moment. But with power generation needing to double or triple over the next few decades to electrify the economy and deal with climate change, transmission is looming as a major hurdle. The decision by Maine voters to scrap a transmission line carrying hydro-electricity from Quebec into New England is a sign of the emerging problem. 

Pillar number three is the need for balancing resources, electricity that can be called on as backup when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. “The problem in New England is we don’t have a very predictable input source into the electric grid, particularly in the winter time when the gas pipelines are constrained,” he said. “I really see [natural] gas as the only option for balancing the system at the moment.” 

Van Welie says other options for balancing fuels could be pursued, including clean hydrogen. But he sees little effort to seek out alternatives. “I don’t see any focus on that problem in the region,” he said. “We’re just relying on essentially season by season spot purchases of imported fuels and eventually we’re going to come up short with that strategy. “ 

The final pillar is energy adequacy. When it gets cold, and the gas pipelines coming into the region reach their limit, New England can run short of the key fuel needed to run the region’s power plants. Even when it’s not that cold, the high price of natural gas can affect the regional market.

This winter, for example, the war in Ukraine sent fossil fuel prices soaring on world markets. The higher prices for natural gas prompted New England’s electricity generators to shift to relatively lower-priced oil and even coal for fuel, both of which drove up greenhouse gas emissions. All that happened even as the winter was relatively mild. 

“It’s the second most expensive winter in our history of the wholesale markets, surpassed only by the winter of 2013-14, when we had a polar vortex,” van Welie said.

Van Welie likens ISO-New England to the air traffic controllers who keep planes flying safely. Like air traffic controllers, ISO-New England doesn’t own what it oversees — the region’s electricity generating plants or transmission lines. Yet through management of the grid and oversight of various wholesale markets the grid operator is charged with getting power to where it needs to go and keeping the lights on.

Van Welie said it’s his responsibility to draw attention to problems as they arise, even if his warnings are not welcomed by environmental advocates who want to dispense with the use of fossil fuels immediately.

“I certainly do feel like I’m under fire and the organization as a whole is under fire,” he said. 

His big fear is that demand for electricity will one day outstrip supply and force the grid operator to bring demand and supply back into balance by shutting off power to customers on a rolling basis.  

“We want people to know that’s a real risk,” van Welie said. “When we do that, it’s not going to feel like reliability. It’s going to feel like someone is turning your lights off.” 

FERC grants delay on N.E. energy market reform

Gives grid operator 2-year transition period

IN A DECISION posted at 10 p.m. Friday night, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave the operator of the New England power grid two more years to come up with a system for incorporating subsidized clean energy into the region’s electricity markets. Environmental activists had been urging FERC not to grant the delay, but the(...)

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Japanese firm has different plan for Cape power plants

Proposes using the facility as a conduit for offshore wind

A JAPANESE COMPANY is buying the oil and gas-fired power plants located in Sandwich on the Cape Cod Canal and seeking to repurpose them primarily as a conduit for delivering energy from offshore wind farms to the New England power grid. At first glance, the power plants wouldn’t seem to hold much value. One is(...)

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NE power grid demand falls to its lowest level ever

Part of shift caused by solar power on homes

DEMAND FOR ELECTRICITY from the New England power grid fell to an all-time low on Sunday, a reflection of the weather and the region’s embrace of solar power. Sunday was a very pleasant day, with mild temperatures, sunshine, and Sunday’s relatively low demand for electricity. The combination meant homeowners didn’t need heat or air conditioning,(...)

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Challenging the status quo on electricity, heating

Two top officials with the Conservation Law Foundation say the region’s power grid operator and the state’s utilities are in some ways part of the problem instead of the solution to dealing with climate change.  Greg Cunningham, the vice president and director of CLF’s clean energy and climate change program, and Caitlin Peale Sloan, the(...)

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Challenging the status quo on electricity, heating

Conservation Law Foundation officials call for change

TWO TOP OFFICIALS with the Conservation Law Foundation say the region’s power grid operator and the state’s utilities are in some ways part of the problem instead of the solution to dealing with climate change. Greg Cunningham, the vice president and director of CLF’s clean energy and climate change program, and Caitlin Peale Sloan, the(...)

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The air traffic controller of electricity

Gordon van Welie is worried about keeping the lights on

GORDON VAN WELIE, the president and CEO of ISO-New England, says there are four pillars that support the regional power grid his organization oversees, and all four are showing signs of stress.  Pillar number one is renewable energy. With clean electricity the key to decarbonizing the transportation and heating sectors, van Welie says New England(...)

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