Grid operator nervous about energy constraints
Says imports of Quebec hydroelectricity needed
THE HEAD OF THE New England power grid said on Monday that energy supply constraints in the region continue to make him nervous, and he said the situation has been aggravated by passage of a law by Maine voters blocking a Massachusetts-financed power line importing hydroelectricity from Quebec.
At a briefing with reporters, Gordon van Welie, the president of ISO-New England,said the region’s electric grid should have adequate resources this winter if, as forecast, the weather is mild. But he said the power grid is at “heightened risk” this winter if there is a prolonged cold snap, which under certain circumstances could necessitate controlled outages to avoid a region-wide blackout.
The problem, as van Welie sees it, is the inadequacy of fuels to operate power plants when temperatures plunge. In extreme cold weather for an extended period of time, natural gas coming into the region via pipeline is diverted for home heating use and less is available for electricity production. The region can plug the gap using oil and liquefied natural gas, but both fuels are considered unreliable — oil because of pandemic-related supply-chain challenges and liquefied natural gas because of the high demand for it on international markets.
What van Welie fears — power outages — came close to happening during the winter of 2017-2018, when the region experienced below average temperatures for 13 consecutive days and came very close to running short of power. After that close call, officials pushed to expand natural gas pipeline capacity coming into the region, but that hasn’t happened.
“We need to get access to Hydro-Quebec’s energy as part of the solution,” van Welie said. “I can see that we could have an extra two to three lines coming into this region, 1,000-1,200 megawatt lines.”
Massachusetts electric ratepayers signed a deal in 2018 with Hydro-Quebec to import hydroelectricity from Quebec over a transmission line running through Maine. The project was nearly halfway through construction in November when voters in Maine passed a law shutting it down. The case is now headed for court where a judge will determine whether the law is constitutional.
“I’m disappointed with the outcome there,” van Welie said, referring to the situation in Maine. “If it doesn’t go ahead, I think we’ll find other paths and I think the one thing we’re going to have to do is recognize that we’re going to have to spend more in order to get these transmission lines sited. For the most part, the objection to the transmission lines is people don’t want to see them. If you bury them, then you remove that objection but of course you then incur a much higher price tag on the lines.”
Van Welie also cautioned that hydroelectricity from Quebec won’t solve New England’s energy and climate challenges. He said the region needs more offshore wind, more solar, more battery storage, and possibly even green hydrogen to fuel power plants.
“We shouldn’t think of Quebec as the final answer to the problem. It’s part of the answer,” he said.
ISO-New England is forecasting that demand for electricity will peak at 19,710 megawatts during average winter weather conditions of 10 degrees farenheit, and 20,349 megawatts if temperatures reach below average conditions of 5 degrees farenheit. Both projections are about 2 percent lower than what was forecasted last year, but longer term the demand for electricity is expected to grow as electricity is used increasingly in the transportation and building sectors.During the 2017-2018 winter, ISO-New England was worried about the system’s ability to meet electricity demand, but not until the danger passed did the agency tell the public about the precarious situation it had faced. Van Welie said the agency now intends to share more information with the public if the situation deteriorates in the future. He also said homeowners and businesses will be asked to conserve energy by turning down thermostats and using appliances less.
“We have been operating close to the edge here in New England,” he said. “We are in a precarious position when it gets to extreme weather, particularly cold weather.”