Fears about blackouts increasing

Region’s fuel insecurity is self-inflicted

THREE MONTHS AGO, the organization that runs our New England power grid sounded a shocking alarm: Our region faces a possibility of forced, rolling wintertime blackouts in coming years, largely because of unrelenting opposition to sensible, long-overdue expansion of our natural gas supply infrastructure.
As we said then, forced blackouts are completely unacceptable, something you’d associate with the Third World of the 1950s, not the New England of the 2020s. We now count on clean natural gas for more than half of the electricity we use here.

Moreover, rolling blackouts would be devastating to our economy, our quality of life, and, in severe winter cold snaps like the ones we experienced in December and January, they could be literally life-threatening for people deprived of heat and power, especially the elderly and medically vulnerable.

Gordon van Welie, CEO of the Independent System Operator New England, which runs our power grid and wholesale electric markets, will be the featured speaker at a conference on Friday in New Hampshire sponsored by The New England Council. Here’s a question we hope he may get asked:

In the last three months, has anything made the ISO less alarmed about the threat that we will have to endure forced, rolling wintertime blackouts to ration available power supplies, all caused by needless, self-inflicted constraints on our access to abundant natural gas just 300 miles away in Pennsylvania?

Or, in fact, has the ISO shown just how alarmed it remains, through the unusual arrangement it is making with the owners of the Mystic power plant in Everett, just north of Boston, which will allow Mystic to charge consumers millions of dollars over wholesale electric market prices to prevent forced blackouts?

If you’re not familiar with what’s happening with Mystic, it’s the nearly 2,000-megawatt power plant just north of Boston, across Route 99 from the new casino under construction. Its complex of natural gas and oil-fueled units can produce enough power to serve 2 million Greater Boston homes.

Late last month, plant owner Exelon threatened to close the plant in 2022, citing the challenging economics of competing with much newer power plants around the region. Exelon also announced it is buying the Distrigas liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, adjacent to Mystic Station, to ensure the power plant can get enough fuel while it continues to run. ISO New England warned that losing 2,000 megawatts of generation capacity in the heart of metropolitan Boston, threatens to overwhelm transmission capacity in the region. Simply put, there aren’t enough, and big enough, electric lines coming into Boston from the north, west, and south to deliver enough power to offset the huge loss of electric output from Mystic, produced in the heart of the metro region. The ISO’s chief operating officer has said a Mystic shutdown would pose “an unacceptable fuel security risk to the region during the winter months.”

So now the ISO is pushing ahead with plans to have federal regulators declare that Mystic must stay open to guarantee reliable power in Boston. This means that Exelon will be able to name, and get, the price it needs to run the plants profitably. That is certain to add millions of dollars to electric bills paid by customers of Eversource, National Grid, and other utilities.

Additionally, instead of producing electricity from affordable, abundant natural gas brought by pipeline from Pennsylvania, because of these pipeline constraints, it looks like Mystic will have to produce much of its electricity from costlier LNG shipped here from overseas. Does running power plants primarily on fuel brought 3,000 miles by ship instead of 300 miles by pipeline make sense to you?
The situation surrounding the Mystic power plant, and the huge costs it will impose on New England utility customers, make the case that ISO New England remains profoundly concerned about rolling blackouts in our area.

It’s one more example of why we’ve seen the editors of the Boston Globe urge the Massachusetts Legislature to “rethink its stance and join efforts by other New England states to expand the region’s pipelines.” It’s why we’ve seen the editors of the Providence Journal conclude that “the hard truth is that the region needs more natural gas pipeline infrastructure to get that vital fuel here.”

Meet the Author

Steve Dodge

Executive director, Massachusetts Petroleum Council
Forced, rolling wintertime blackouts are a dire–yet completely unnecessary and avoidable–threat for New England. Costly bailouts for power plants to stave off those blackouts are hugely unfair to consumers, and not a sustainable long-term solution. The Globe, the Providence Journal, and sensible observers of the New England energy landscape have it right. The time is long overdue for modernization and expansion of our natural gas infrastructure to meet our region’s demand for this clean, abundant and affordable, US-produced fuel.

Stephen C. Dodge is executive director of the New England Petroleum Council.