Brayton Pt closing ups need for gas

New pipeline capacity needed to match supply, demand

AS BADLY AS ALL OF US in Massachusetts have been needing improved access to natural gas, Wednesday at midnight our need–and the challenge to our economy and energy security–grow even more critical.

The reason? Wednesday at midnight is when the giant, coal-powered Brayton Point electric generating station in Somerset, Massachusetts, shuts down for good.

For decades, Brayton Point has had the capacity to power as many as 1.5 million New England homes. But like coal plants around the country, it’s proven unable to compete economically while complying with ever-stricter emissions rules, and so is being shut down.

When Brayton Point goes out of service, the only way the loss of that power can be covered is through even greater reliance on power plants fueled by natural gas.

And if Massachusetts and New England can’t finally find a way to stop saying no to seemingly every single proposal to improve our energy infrastructure, including long-overdue natural gas pipeline improvements, we’re looking at the risk of soaring electric rates and unreliable service. The question is not if, but when.

Most Massachusetts residents likely are unaware of how dependent we now are on natural gas to keep our lights and computers on, our smartphones charged up, and our refrigerators and air conditioners working.

In 2015, according to US Energy Department data, nearly two-thirds of all the electricity generated in Massachusetts – 64 percent – came from power plants that run on natural gas. Across all of New England, in no small part because of environmentalists rightly pushing for cleaner-burning gas plants to replace coal and oil for electric generation, natural gas has grown from supplying just 5 percent of the region’s electricity in 1990 to now nearly 50 percent.

This has been excellent news for the air we breathe in Massachusetts and across New England. Because natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal and oil, and a tiny fraction of smog-making emissions, from 1999 to 2014 increased use of gas helped New England slash CO2 emissions 26 percent, nitrogen oxides 66 percent, and sulfur dioxide 94 percent. For your lungs and your eyes, especially if you have asthma or another respiratory illness, natural gas has helped make New England markedly healthier.

All that said, however, increased reliance on natural gas means we can’t keep putting off and denying the need to ensure supply can meet demand. During the “polar vortex” winter of 2014, for example, constraints on natural gas supply meant we got socked with an extra $3.7 billion on our heating and electric bills and gas-fired power plants had to switch to burning higher-emitting oil to stave off blackouts. Month in and month out, our inadequate access to abundant natural gas in Pennsylvania means we pay some of the highest electric and heating bills in the country.

Renewable energy is an exciting development—but it will take decades for enough renewables to come online to replace Brayton Point. The earliest we might see offshore wind really producing electricity for Massachusetts is the mid-2020s, if everything goes right. Our need for natural gas to ensure our energy security will soar again two years from now when the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth shuts down.

Meet the Author

Steve Dodge

Executive director, Massachusetts Petroleum Council
New England has needed for years to increase its access to affordable, reliable, abundant natural gas. It’s critical to our economic competitiveness, to working families struggling to make ends meet, and to protecting and sustaining the huge environmental benefits natural gas has already delivered.

With Brayton Point shut down, New England’s need for natural gas is now even more urgent.

Steve Dodge is the executive director of the Massachusetts Petroleum Council.