Cold snap putting squeeze on oil-fired power plants

Cold snap putting squeeze on oil-fired power plants

Generators running short on fuel, facing environmental restrictions

NEW ENGLAND’S POWER GRID OPERATOR said on Tuesday that the system is “operating under normal conditions,” but warned that the prolonged cold snap is driving up wholesale electricity prices and putting a squeeze on power plants that run on oil.

Marcia Blomberg, a spokeswoman for ISO-New England, issued a statement saying high demand for natural gas for heating “is causing natural gas pipeline constraints,” meaning pipeline capacity is not adequate to meet current demand in the region. As a result, the price of natural gas for delivery in New England is rising, prompting a shift to power generators who are using lower-cost oil and coal.

Blomberg said many of the oil-fired generators are operating around the clock and starting to run short on fuel. She also said some of the oil-fired generators “are experiencing air emissions limitations” and, as a result, are likely to soon face operating restrictions.

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Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“Environmental limitations on how much, or whether, some oil-fired power plants will be able to generate electricity could become a concern this week and for the remainder of the winter,” she said.

Generating plants running on oil and coal typically provide negligible amounts of power in New England. But the fuel mix has changed dramatically during the recent cold snap, with oil-fired power plants providing nearly a third of the region’s electricity and coal 5 percent. As of Tuesday afternoon, oil-fired power plants were generating 32 percent of the region’s electricity, with plants running on natural gas providing 27 percent and nuclear power plants contributing 22 percent. The balance of the region’s power was being supplied by renewables and hydro.

Wholesale electricity prices appear to be up dramatically in New England. According to data on the ISO website, the marginal price of electricity at a central location in Massachusetts averaged $140 per megawatt hour between December 23 and January 2. During the same period a year ago, the average price was $37 per megawatt hour.

  • NortheasternEE

    State and regional mandates and policies for undependable wind and solar power are forcing depedable coal and nuclear power off the grid. The political class needs to resist misguided environmentalist from killing coal and nuclear before wind and solar power become dependable replacements. When natural gas from PA becomes the only reliable grid generator, there is not a pipeline big enough to avoid shortages.

    • QuincyQuarry.com

      Better some new gas pipeline capacity than none at all until such time as wind and solar might become more reliable as well as truly viable as major sources of electrical power.

      Oh, and let’s not forget about importing Canadian hydro-powered electricity. After all, there have been some major breakthroughs in electricity long line transmission technology in recent years.

      • NortheasternEE

        It’s a gamble not worth taking!

      • blueshift

        that is eventually coming – but there is the problem of running the requisite high-capacity DC extension cord from quebec and nova scotia hydro sources. And those hydro projects have huge environmental costs of their own; it isn’t ‘clean’ power either.

        • QuincyQuarry.com

          Again, there have been major technological breakthroughs with long line transmission. And yes, hydro has its own issues, but what alternatives don’t? Key is going with the least ugly options AND developing a reliable matrix of sources.

  • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

    Build it!!!!

  • taconite

    Situations like this is why coal power plants need to be kept around. They usually have several months worth piled outside of the plant and don’t have to worry about a pipe with limited capacity.