Climate change already causing power grid issues

100-year storms are happening more frequently now

IN THE WAKE of the Texas tragedy, when the extreme cold weather literally froze the power grid, took out electricity and fuel supplies, and wreaked havoc on millions of lives, questions have been raised about whether it could happen here in New England. At ISO New England, our number one priority is to maintain a reliable power grid regardless of unanticipated weather events. As weather conditions continue to grow more severe, however, it is clear that the ability to plan and operate a reliable power system during these “atypical” weather events is growing more difficult.

The good news is that, unlike Texas and the power systems in the southern states, New England’s power system is winterized to operate during severe cold conditions. But the region is dependent on imported energy and fuel supply chains that are sometimes compromised during severe cold. Dating back to 2004, we have had our own near misses because of “energy adequacy,” which refers to the ability of power plants to have the energy sources they need to generate electricity during severe weather conditions.

As many may recall, there was an extended cold snap in late December 2017/early January 2018 when harbors and rivers froze, roads were treacherous, oil plants ran low on oil, and gas pipelines were operating at their limits and unable to supply sufficient gas to all generators. If that cold front had stretched longer, there were real concerns about maintaining grid reliability.

ISO New England recognizes that energy adequacy is a critical concern. If a power plant doesn’t have access to the particular source of energy needed to produce electricity – whether it’s solar, wind, hydropower, natural gas, oil, coal, or nuclear —it can’t operate. If this happens to too many resources at the same time, then the grid operator, in this instance ISO New England, may have to step in to protect the system from collapsing. Grid operators have several tools available to maintain the delicate balance between supply and demand, and in certain circumstances utilizing controlled outages may be necessary to protect against greater damage to the system.

The concern we face today is that these “once in a century” weather events are happening more frequently than every hundred years. Climate change is affecting weather patterns, which has put external pressure on the power grid. So we may need to rethink our historical assumptions about energy adequacy to ensure system reliability under a new definition of extreme weather conditions.

As a region, we need to do more to address the vulnerabilities that such low probability/high impact weather events have exposed. Should extended periods of extreme cold hit, our power grid and fuel delivery systems will likely be stretched thin and vulnerable to the potential for unexpected outages affecting some of the large energy providers. Because the ISO does not have operational or commercial authority over fuel delivery systems, the best tool we have available for addressing these risks is to create strong market rules for generators, including penalties and incentives to contract for adequate energy storage and fuel arrangements, and for consumers to reduce demand for electricity.

ISO New England, state officials, utilities, power plants and others in the energy industry all have a responsibility to take action to mitigate the region’s risks to wide-scale power outages – both in the near term and in the long term as we move toward decarbonizing the grid and its economy. The New England states lead the nation in committing to a renewable power grid, while also setting goals to electrify the heating and transportation sectors. Current estimates indicate that power grid use could nearly double from this changeover. That means it is even more critical that the future grid withstand severe weather events.

ISO New England is partnering with the New England states and industry stakeholders to study what will be needed to make sure the future grid is both clean — and reliable. Planning is now underway to examine potential power system needs in 2030, 2040 and 2050, based on timelines outlined by state goals, while ensuring our current system continues to be prepared for the unpredictable weather happening now.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Gordon van Welie

President and CEO, ISO New England
The lessons from Texas are still unfolding, but it is clear that we must continue to work together as a region to strengthen our energy foundation, including robust wholesale markets, regulatory standards, and energy supply infrastructure – to withstand the extremes of climate change. Our region is on the right path toward its clean energy future, but as we move forward, the ISO wants to be certain that when the next storm of the century moves in, we’ll be ready.

Kathleen Q. Abernathy is the chair of the ISO New England board of directors and Gordon van Welie is ISO New England’s president and chief executive officer. ISO New England runs the region’s power system and wholesale electricity marketplace for the six New England states.