More renewables, not more gas, is our future

Fossil fuels are not essential to power grid reliability

At 4:30 p.m. on a bitter, cold Christmas Eve 2022, New England’s power grid operator ISO-NE declared a capacity deficiency after gas and oil generators used during times of peak demand failed to provide sufficient energy. The failure pushed our regional power grid to the brink and put residents at risk of blackouts. Over two hours passed before ISO-NE resolved the deficiency. In that time, energy prices soared and the weaknesses of our energy system were revealed.

There are several reasons why generators failed on December 24. ISO-NE has said the extreme cold caused by Winter Storm Elliot and other mechanical issues resulted in reduced output from some fossil fuel generators, and imports of hydropower from Canada were reduced. What’s worse is that another eight gigawatts of fossil fuel power was unavailable due to the time needed to start up the plants that produce that power.

All these causes reflect the vulnerabilities posed by a fossil fuel-dependent energy system. Consumers region-wide pour billions of dollars into a power grid they should be able to count on. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has touted the further expansion of the gas system as the way to ensure a reliable grid and resilient energy infrastructure. On December 24, gas was neither reliable nor resilient. Instead, faulty generators were penalized a total of $39 million by ISO-NE for not delivering on their capacity commitments.

Ratepayer dollars should not be directed toward gas expansion based solely on assumptions and false reliability narratives pushed by the fossil fuel industry. It may surprise some to know that while Christmas Eve saw outages and reductions at fossil fuel plants, wind – a renewable, clean energy source without the polluting impacts of a gas plant — produced steadily and helped to fill in the gaps.

Massachusetts must focus its resources on putting more renewable energy like offshore and onshore wind on the grid, not gas. A recent report by Renew Northeast shows that by adding renewable resources to the grid New England can boost reliability and improve energy prices. Local, clean wind power would meaningfully reduce emissions, hedge against volatile energy costs, and operate reliably on cold nights.

Unfortunately, projects that would expand a fossil grid are either in construction or under consideration. In Peabody, community members are fighting construction of a new gas and oil-burning peaker plant. And further west, a five-mile-long gas pipeline between Springfield and Longmeadow has been subject to similar opposition as it awaits state approval.

Massachusetts energy consumers are not only funding expansion of a vulnerable gas-reliant grid, they are also paying more for it now than before. During the capacity deficiency on December 24, real-time prices rose to more than $2,000 per megawatt-hour (MWh), or $2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). And while ISO-NE has tried to assure consumers that this one-day price spike is unlikely to impact their wallets immediately, New Englanders’ energy bills are not totally insulated from the effect of these higher prices. Plus, these same consumers have already faced skyrocketing electricity costs over the past year.

In the first three months of 2022, wholesale electricity prices in the eastern US jumped to $137/MWh, an 83 percent increase compared to the same time in 2021. Because a large share of New England’s electricity supply is sourced from gas plants, the region acutely feels the strain of rising global gas costs on their electric bills. In January 2023, Eversource Energy roughly doubled its residential electric supply rate from 12.1 cents per kWh to 24.2 cents per kWh for customers in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Massachusetts is in urgent need of a clean energy transition. The only way to mitigate the impacts of these price swings is to move beyond gas for good. The grid failures on December 24 only confirm this. ISO-NE has publicly admitted that all outages that day occurred at fossil fuel powered plants. Our leaders have access to this information and must use it to double down on replacing fossil fuels. It is time decisionmakers ground action in facts, not baseless assumptions and decades-long gas industry propaganda.

ISO-NE similarly must ground its assessment of resource reliability on truth, not the same unproven notions that fossil fuels are essential to grid reliability. ISO-NE must update the ways it determines the reliability contributions of different resource types like gas, oil, coal, and renewable energy. While ISO-NE is moving towards a model that accounts for the challenges of delivering gas during winter events, it is far behind on accounting for slow start-up times at oil and coal units.

On December 24, Massachusetts experienced firsthand the dangers of overreliance on volatile commodities like gas. Leaders, learn from the errors of the past and act now. Do not allow for a future where New England retains its status as cautionary tale about the consequences of gas dependence. Lead the nation forward in the transition toward cleaner, renewable energy sources that bring local jobs and healthier communities.

Deb Pasternak is the current director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club Chapter.