The air traffic controller of electricity

Gordon van Welie is worried about keeping the lights on

GORDON VAN WELIE, the president and CEO of ISO-New England, says there are four pillars that support the regional power grid his organization oversees, and all four are showing signs of stress.

 Pillar number one is renewable energy. With clean electricity the key to decarbonizing the transportation and heating sectors, van Welie says New England needs to produce or procure a lot more renewable energy. “It’s clear we’re not going fast enough,” he said on The Codcast.

 Pillar number two is transmission, the ability to move electricity from where it is produced to where it is needed. Van Welie said transmission is adequate at the moment. But with power generation needing to double or triple over the next few decades to electrify the economy and deal with climate change, transmission is looming as a major hurdle. The decision by Maine voters to scrap a transmission line carrying hydro-electricity from Quebec into New England is a sign of the emerging problem.

Pillar number three is the need for balancing resources, electricity that can be called on as backup when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. “The problem in New England is we don’t have a very predictable input source into the electric grid, particularly in the winter time when the gas pipelines are constrained,” he said. “I really see [natural] gas as the only option for balancing the system at the moment.”

Van Welie says other options for balancing fuels could be pursued, including clean hydrogen. But he sees little effort to seek out alternatives. “I don’t see any focus on that problem in the region,” he said. “We’re just relying on essentially season by season spot purchases of imported fuels and eventually we’re going to come up short with that strategy. “

The final pillar is energy adequacy. When it gets cold, and the gas pipelines coming into the region reach their limit, New England can run short of the key fuel needed to run the region’s power plants. Even when it’s not that cold, the high price of natural gas can affect the regional market. 

This winter, for example, the war in Ukraine sent fossil fuel prices soaring on world markets. The higher prices for natural gas prompted New England’s electricity generators to shift to relatively lower-priced oil and even coal for fuel, both of which drove up greenhouse gas emissions. All that happened even as the winter was relatively mild.  

“It’s the second most expensive winter in our history of the wholesale markets, surpassed only by the winter of 2013-14, when we had a polar vortex,” van Welie said.

Van Welie likens ISO-New England to the air traffic controllers who keep planes flying safely. Like air traffic controllers, ISO-New England doesn’t own what it oversees — the region’s electricity generating plants or transmission lines. Yet through management of the grid and oversight of various wholesale markets the grid operator is charged with getting power to where it needs to go and keeping the lights on.

Van Welie said it’s his responsibility to draw attention to problems as they arise, even if his warnings are not welcomed by environmental advocates who want to dispense with the use of fossil fuels immediately.

Meet the Author

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.

“I certainly do feel like I’m under fire and the organization as a whole is under fire,” he said.

His big fear is that demand for electricity will one day outstrip supply and force the grid operator to bring demand and supply back into balance by shutting off power to customers on a rolling basis. 

“We want people to know that’s a real risk,” van Welie said. “When we do that, it’s not going to feel like reliability. It’s going to feel like someone is turning your lights off.”