Clean energy generators are already proving their worth
We can move toward an electric grid that is both clean and reliable
AS HAS BEEN widely reported, the arctic cold snap that swept through New England on Christmas Eve, combined with an unexpected system shortfall due to generator outages and reduced energy imports, left grid operators struggling to meet demand. For over two hours, a shortfall of over 2,000 megawatts required a swift dispatch of the grid’s peaker plants to fill the gap. Since the frigid temperatures had sent the price of natural gas soaring, many generators switched to oil, meaning our most polluting energy source accounted for 29 percent of our total fuel mix that day and 34 percent during the peak demand hour.
What was not widely reported however was the role that local, clean hydropower and pumped-hydro storage played in keeping the lights on that day. When they were needed most, local hydro resources ramped up from about 900 MW to 2,200 MW during the afternoon, around the same time many of us were putting holiday roasts in the oven for dinner. In total, hydro resources contributed 12 percent of the energy supply during peak demand, and they may have made the difference between uninterrupted electricity supply for a New England Christmas Eve, and the need for rolling blackouts.
Other renewables also held steady, delivering power as projected. Too often the role of existing renewable sources gets overlooked in the ongoing hotly-debated discussions about how to meet the region’s winter-time energy needs. However, ISO-New England’s data makes clear that on Christmas Eve, hydropower came to the rescue.
What the data also shows is that we have a long way to go in getting to a fully clean mix of resources we can rely on when conditions become extreme. On December 24, oil generated 29 percent of the region’s electricity, nuclear 23 percent, natural gas 16 percent, hydropower 8 percent, and 8 percent renewables (with an unknown mix of imports making up virtually all the rest).
New England is not alone in its ongoing heavy reliance on fossil fuels. A recent report revealed that in 2022, US emissions rose 1.3 percent, compared to 2021, on top of 2021’s 6.5 percent rise from the previous year. Together, the past two years have almost erased the 10.6 percent decline in emissions in 2020, largely due to pandemic-related shutdowns. With progress shrinking and interim targets approaching, the urgency to accelerate the energy transition has never been greater.
But we don’t have to be tethered to a fossil-fuel dominated forever. As a region, we are fortunate to have an existing base of zero-emissions resources (hydro, nuclear, and other renewables). However, we don’t lean as heavily on these resources today as we should. My company’s largest clean power plant – Northfield Mountain, in Western Mass. – is a zero-emissions pumped-hydro facility that only operates at about 25 percent of its full potential annual output. Because the price dispatch signals that govern our grid are agnostic to whether resources are zero-emissions or not, we see many cold days in the winter when gas and oil ramp up during the evening “peak” when energy needs are greatest, and where clean resources like Northfield Mountain are left sitting on the sidelines. This is not the right strategy if we are going to have any hope of hitting Massachusetts’ nation-leading greenhouse gas reduction goals.
To put this unused potential in context, Northfield Mountain, the region’s largest pumped hydro storage facility, is itself capable of delivering clean electricity to more than 1.3 million homes for eight hours a day, each day. It is ideally suited to capture renewable energy generated in periods of less demand, store it, and send it out when higher demand requires it. We already do this frequently on sunny days in the spring when the region’s installed solar capacity is cranking, and solar electricity is in abundant supply.
Northfield is well positioned to provide flexibility as larger intermittent renewables like offshore wind come online. The path breaking Vineyard Wind project that is now finally under construction is 800 MW of clean offshore wind coming to the New England power grid very soon. This is great news. And there’s more good news: The region is fortunate that there is already nearly 2,000 MW of installed pumped-hydro capacity ready and waiting to balance this clean but intermittent energy. That is, assuming we begin to put in place the policies to let it do that job.
The Commonwealth has a clear mandate – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a goal more ambitious than any other state has adopted. Building on that, Gov. Healey has promised to be the most aggressive climate governor in the nation. To put ourselves in position to hit those targets, and to avoid cranking up oil and gas every time the temperature drops, it is imperative that we prioritize decarbonization – starting today.
As one solution, the comprehensive climate bill signed into law last summer positioned the state to study large-scale energy storage in preparation for the necessary procurement of additional capacity in the years to come. Tapping under-utilized existing storage as well as accelerating the adoption of large-scale new battery energy-storage projects are both key components towards weaning ourselves off fossil fuels as our only resources to meet growing reliability needs. Just as Massachusetts and other New England states have used procurements to spur offshore wind development, this same tool can ensure that we swap out polluting fossil peaking and replace it with clean peaking resources like hydro and batteries.
The next four years of the Healey administration will be pivotal if we are to make progress, demanding swift action to decarbonize, modernize the grid, and implement meaningful policy to wean the region off fossil fuels and stabilize volatile energy prices for ratepayers. There’s no better example than the near-miss for the region this Christmas Eve to prove that pumped-hydro storage in combination with renewables can and should be trusted as a growing part of the region’s reliability solutions. We can’t afford to rest on our laurels – 2030 is fast approaching.
Alicia Barton is the CEO of FirstLight Power.