Pilgrim nuclear plant goes offline

Outage adds to grid uncertainty, fuels pipeline debate

PILGRIM STATION, the nuclear power plant in Plymouth, took itself offline Thursday afternoon, adding uncertainty to efforts by the New England power grid operator to meet electricity demand as a powerful snowstorm gripped the region.

Patrick O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the plant’s owner, Entergy, said Pilgrim was taken offline at 2:09 p.m. due to the loss of one of two off-site power lines that feed electricity to the grid. McMahon said company officials were trying to determine the cause of the problem.

“When Pilgrim will return to 100 percent power is considered business sensitive, and we do not disclose that information,” O’Brien said in a statement.

Pilgrim went down as the regional power grid operator, ISO-New England, issued a statement saying it expected to have sufficient capacity and fuel available to meet electricity demand through the weekend – barring any unforeseen outages.

Matthew Kakley, a spokesman for ISO-New England, acknowledged the Pilgrim outage was unexpected. “This outage does further challenge the region on fuel availability because we need to rely on other generating resources to meet consumer demand and meet overall grid reliability,” he said in an email.

The loss of Pilgrim appeared to have little immediate impact on the fuel mix of generators producing electricity. According to real-time data on ISO-New England’s website, the fuel mix at 5 p.m. Thursday was 27 percent oil, 24 percent natural gas, 22 percent nuclear, 12 percent renewables, 11 percent hydro, and 6 percent coal.

On Tuesday afternoon, the fuel mix was 32 percent oil, 27 percent natural gas, and 22 percent nuclear, with the balance coming from renewables, hydro, and coal.

In its statement, ISO-New England reiterated its position that the cold weather is driving up wholesale energy prices and dramatically altering the mix of fuels used to generate electricity. Typically, natural gas is used to generate about half of the region’s electricity and oil and coal, which produce more greenhouse gas emissions, provide negligible amounts.

“High demand for natural gas for heating is causing natural gas pipeline constraints that are resulting in high natural gas prices,” the grid operator said in its statement. “As a consequence, both oil- and coal-fired power plants are generating at much higher levels than is typical. The high fuel prices are pushing up wholesale power prices as well.”

Some environmental advocates have raised doubts about whether the pipelines are actually constrained. They have pointed to data indicating the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline running from Canada down into New Hampshire and Massachusetts has excess capacity. Pipeline industry officials say there is available capacity on the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline because it transports natural gas that comes into North American as liquefied natural gas, or LNG. LNG is expensive and must be purchased on world markets.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

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.

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.

By contrast, the industry officials say, pipelines coming north to New England from gas fields in Pennsylvania and other areas are running at full capacity now.

The severe winter weather slamming New England has set off a contentious debate in Massachusetts about whether the region needs additional pipeline capacity. Industry officials say additional capacity could help bring natural gas prices down and prevent the shift during winter storms to more environmentally harmful fuels such as oil and coal. Environmental advocates, however, say it makes no sense to build expensive additional pipeline capacity to deal with fuel shortages that typically pop up for only brief periods during the winter months.

Bob Massie, a Democratic candidate for governor, issued an energy plan on Thursday that calls for a price on carbon, a complete shift to renewables by 2050, and a decentralized power grid that would support efforts by homeowners to generate more of their own power. Gov. Charlie Baker has embraced the development of more renewables, but his administration has also been supportive of efforts to increase the region’s natural gas pipeline capacity.

  • Andrei Radulescu-Banu

    Bruce, you skipped two important parts of the Bob Massie plan. He is calling for a complete halt in fossil fuel infrastructure investment. And his call for a complete shift to renewables by 2050 is rhetorical, not quantitative, given that he does not provide an actual plan to achieve his proposal.

  • NortheasternEE

    The key to a clean energy future is, what ISO-NE calls, seasonal energy storage. Current energy storage is measured in hours. No one knows when, if ever, the development of seasonal energy storage will materialize. Ambitious politicians who promise that a carbon tax will achieve the goal by 2050 will only damage the grid, fail to avoid carbon, raise taxes and rates sky high, and have no chance of stopping “Global Warming”