Reliance on natural gas expected to grow

Reliance on natural gas expected to grow

Forecast comes as activists seek less use of fossil fuels

THE OPERATOR OF THE NEW ENGLAND power grid said on Thursday that demand for electricity will remain fairly flat over the next decade, but warned that the region will become more reliant on natural gas to meet its power needs.

The grid operator, ISO-New England, said in its 2017 system plan that the region’s growing reliance on natural gas and its inadequate pipeline capacity raise reliability concerns that “remain particularly critical during peak winter demand conditions.” Later this fall, the ISO is expected to release what it describes as a fuel security study, which many believe will make the case for the need for more gas pipelines coming into the region.

The report, unveiled at a conference at the World Trade Center, broke little new ground, but it came at a time when environmental advocates are pushing for dramatic changes in the way the region produces electricity. Some are pushing for carbon fees. Others are calling for a shift to 100 percent renewable energy. None of the advocates want to see the region increase its reliance on fossil fuels, and many of them have begun targeting Gordon van Welie, the president of ISO-New England, accusing him of being biased in favor of natural gas.

The ISO report spells out how difficult it may be to wean the region off of natural gas. The report said natural gas-fired plants represented 44.5 percent of the region’s generating capacity in 2016, a percentage that is forecasted to rise to 56 percent by 2026 as gas plants replace coal, oil, and nuclear plants that are shutting down.

The report forecasted that demand for electricity will be stagnant over the next decade, in part because of energy efficiency efforts and growth in solar power installations. Solar’s contribution to the energy mix is forecasted to grow from 1,581 gigawatt hours at the end of 2016 to 6,218 gigawatt hours by 2026, a huge increase. But solar’s share of the region’s overall energy pie is expected to remain relatively small, growing from 1 percent to 4 percent over that time period.

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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.

Randi Soltysiak, a representative of the environmental advocacy group Mothers Out Front, was upset after listening to the ISO presentation on increased use of natural gas. “It certainly sounds like the grid is about to get a whole lot dirtier,” she told the crowd at the conference. She also said it was “morally unconscionable” to increase the region’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“We need to change the direction we’re going in,” she said. “We need to do better. We need to do this at breakneck speed.”

  • stevenjb1

    Pilgrim nuclear power plant produces 14% of Massachusetts’ electricity with zero carbon emissions. It is scheduled to close in 2019 after 47 years of operation because of the currently low price of natural gas. If we are going to subsidize solar and wind to achieve carbon dioxide emission reductions, does it not make sense to subsidize nuclear as well, and achieve carbon dioxide emission reductions at a fraction of the cost?

    • Justify “at a fraction of the cost”, please. Marginal cost of solar and wind energy is ZERO. Pilgrim cannot operate safely without retrofits, which the owners see as not being profitable. Nuclear has waste disposal and waste storage/guarding costs, which are not zero.

      There would be a point to continuing to subsidize existing nuclear plants until wind and solar had more fraction of the electricity supply, but there is no point in building new ones. We (or anyone else) apparently do not know how to build at scale commercial nuclear plants, because their (business) learning curve is negative. That is, even after correcting for additional safety and environmental regulations, building nuclear plant N+1 costs more than nuclear plant N. No sensible technology works that way. Things are cheaper to build with additional units because more is learned about how to do them.

      You are correct the reason why nuclear is being phased out is because it is being out-competed by natural gas. I would not want to subsidize it additionally because some day in the next decade or two, natural gas plants will be closing, and pipelines will be being furloughed, because wind and solar will be out competing natural gas, whether or not subsidies continue. If new (pipeline) infrastructure is built, it will be the most foolish investment in energy history, but those who do will get properly spanked by the markets. Unless, of course, they are bailed out by government.

      So, while building gas is unwise, including pipelines, it’s worse to build it, start paying for it, and then subsidize it when it a money loser for the Commonwealth, for New England, and for energy users.

      • stevenjb1

        Apparently you’ve drunk the kool-aid with regard to renewables, so let me address your concerns. First of all, without subsidies, wind and solar cannot compete with fossil fuels or nuclear. While their marginal costs may be zero, their installation and maintenance costs are not, and their capacity factors are so low, in the range of 10-35%, that they can’t compete on a level playing field. Furthermore, they need constant 1-1 backup with natural gas, so the cost of the natural gas plants should also be taken into consideration, as well as any transmission lines and frequency regulation requirements they might have. By adding excess capacity to the grid in a period of flat or declining demand, they drive down wholesale electricity rates, forcing traditional baseload coal and and nuclear to close and leaving you with a grid that is highly dependent on the price and availability of natural gas, which could be a problem in the winter months when demand is high and supplies are tight.

        Onshore wind is becoming increasingly difficult to site in Massachusetts, due to concerns over Wind Turbine Syndrome (noise, vibration, etc.) and aesthetic appeal. Most people do not want one in their backyard. Offshore wind has similar problems, as exemplified by the demise of Cape Wind, and in addition is 3X more expensive than onshore wind. Solar is easier to site, especially rooftop solar, but here in New England we simply don’t get enough sunshine to make it cost-effective without subsidies. Hydroelectric power is wonderful as long as you don’t like fish runs, but most of the best sites in Massachusetts have already been developed and we are now looking at importing hydropower from Quebec, which requires new transmission lines, exports jobs from Massachusetts to Quebec, and is dependent on Quebec having sufficient supply to meet our requirements on a continuous basis.

        Replacing the 14% of Massachusetts’ electricity from carbon-free nuclear power plants like Pilgrim with new-build renewable and natural gas plants will not only increase electric rates but increase carbon emissions as well. The storage and disposal issues of nuclear waste can be easily managed and have been for the last 47 years. Ultimately, the waste can be disposed of in a deep geological repository or used as fuel in one of the 4th-generation molten salt reactors currently under development, reducing their period of toxicity from 10,000 years down to 200 years, then stored safely underground.

  • NortheasternEE

    “…demand for electricity will remain fairly flat over the next decade…”

    So, why are coal and nuclear power plants being replaced by naturals gas?

    The explanation given that natural gas is cheaper would make sense if it wasn’t for the fact that there isn’t enough natural gas to satisfy our needs without the construction of additional pipelines to Pennsylvania at ratepayers expense. I blame the mandates for wind and solar, which can only function with more natural gas firming. Beacon Hill has us on a path to an unstable grid whose resilience lies completely on the just-in-time supply of natural gas from far away Pennsylvania. Mandates for 25% renewable energy by 2020 with calls for 100% by 2050 are sending a signal to reliable coal and nuclear generators, with locally stored fuel, that they have no future in New England. Unless Beacon Hill wakes up to reality, we are headed to an unreliable New England grid whose resilience depends 100% on the price and availability of Pennsylvania natural gas. With flat or decreasing demand, Beacon Hill is forcing changes to the New England Power grid that will bring us skyrocketing rates, and an unreliable system full of brownouts and blackouts.

    Demand that Beacon Hill repeal the 2008 mandates, and let ISO-NE get back to the business of giving us a reliable grid without ever-increasing rates.

  • Roland Scott

    I don’t think the numbers are totally clear on natural gas consumption for power generation. Yes the “capacity” percentage of gas units will grow on the grid as it replaces some nuclear/coal capacity but the increase in renewables may cause them to be used less often… so the amount of natural gas “used” could be less. I haven’t seen the projected numbers, but this should be made clearer in the presentation.

  • NortheasternEE

    According to this, the combination of wind and natural gas fails to reduce both gas consumption and fails to avoid carbon emissions. Natural gas power generators used for firming the variable and intermittent power from wind and solar have to run at half normal efficiency, burning twice as much fuel per kilowatt-hour.

    https://www.forbes.com/2011/07/19/wind-energy-carbon.html

    You need seasonal storage, which is unavailable, to gain the promise of clean energy from wind and solar!

  • ISO-NE itself has said demand is flat, peak demand is lowering, there will be more solar and wind which can help. The only entities pushing for the pipelines are the utilities. See https://www.rtoinsider.com/iso-ne-energy-efficiency-solar-49606/

    ISO-NE and Commonwealth governance should focus upon where the REAL risks are. Customers don’t want to be without power, and that’s the fear which the utilities and van Welie and company stoke to push for natural gas. But the peak days where this and brownouts could be an issue are very rare. But what ACTUALLY affects customers are when they lose power during storms, at times, with severe storms and ice storms, for WEEKS AT A TIME, partly because the grids of Eversource and National Grid are so dumb and antiquated, they cannot do self-isolation and repair of outages, a technical standard which is commonplace in other advanced countries of the world.

    So, simple logic says if ISO-NE and the utilities are REALLY serious about “grid reliability” they should address this more prevalent and serious risk. One way of doing that is a smarter grid. Another way is to decentralize energy, something which is being proved as more reliable in Florida and Texas after recent storms. The technology to do that is quite available. See https://667-per-cm.net/2017/09/21/power-move-brought-to-you-by-siemens-and-the-atlantic/