More pipelines aren’t the answer

The weather outside is frightful – and so is our over-reliance on natural gas

NEW ENGLAND IS in the clutches of a frigid winter. This is putting demands on our energy resources and driving up electricity prices during the few hours of the day when consumer electricity use is highest. Concerns over these temporary price spikes are warranted, particularly given their impacts on our most vulnerable. But year after year, the oil and gas industry takes advantage of this situation with fear-mongering, self-serving calls for New England’s families and businesses to spend billions on gas pipelines that will profit only the industry while polluting our air. But doubling down on our over-reliance on fossil fuels would only add fuel to the fire, and it’s telling that this one-sided proposal has already been considered and rejected by New England’s leaders.

To start, it is critical to acknowledge the historically short duration of winter price spikes. When they occur, they are limited to a handful of hours during the mornings and evenings of only our coldest days, when there is a coincidence of high gas use for heating and for generating electricity. As a result, these costly “needle peak” demands for electricity generally occur only 10 to 40 days out of the year, or in the range of 5 percent of the total hours the system operates in a year. The prospect of spending billions of dollars on pipelines that will sit idle 95 percent of the time and become obsolete in the next 10 to 15 years as our grid becomes increasingly clean defies all economic sense, environmental sense, and common sense.

What’s more, these short-term spikes are occurring in the midst of a steep, three-year downward trend in annual wholesale electricity costs. By doing the exact opposite of what fossil fuel companies are suggesting – by, instead, diversifying our energy sources and investing in wind and solar power – we’re seeing energy prices moving in the right direction. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

There are steps we can take today to address our limited price spikes by taking better advantage of existing LNG storage, investing in energy efficiency, and fixing leaking infrastructure. But sacrificing our future for an unproven and theoretical short-term gain should not be on the table. If expanding gas pipelines makes economic sense, then why haven’t the petroleum giants invested their own money to make it happen? It’s simple: they consider it too big a risk to put down their own money, so they’d rather gamble with ours.

But we know better and have the studies to prove it. These include analyses commissioned by consumer watchdogs at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and the Maine Public Utilities Commission and from some of the best energy consulting firms in the country. They conclude that the costs of gas pipeline expansions outweigh any potential benefits. Another study found that, rather than save money, a new pipeline would result in overall net costs of as much as $277 million for New England electricity consumers. These economic flaws, along with legal impediments, spelled the demise of Kinder Morgan’s huge Northeast Energy Direct pipeline and caused the funding scheme for Spectra’s massive Access Northeast proposals to be rejected by state courts and utility commissions.

There is also serious doubt as to whether new pipelines would even help us avoid winter price surges. In regions of the country that sit on top of significant gas supply and where gas pipelines have proliferated, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and mid-Atlantic states, prices still spike during cold weather. During the last major cold snap in 2014, electricity prices in that mid-Atlantic region exceeded those in New England, and we are seeing a similar trend of high prices in that region over the past two weeks of cold temperatures. This suggests that, even if we could accept the exorbitant price tag for more pipelines and afford to ignore their damaging impacts on our climate, it’s likely that short-term price spikes would persist as long as we remain over-reliant upon gas as a fuel source.

Meet the Author
So enough with the empty rhetoric. It’s time for the gas industry, and our utilities, to help New England implement real, forward-thinking solutions that reduce gas and electricity price spikes while speeding our transition to a clean energy economy.

Greg Cunningham is the director of Conservation Law Foundation’s clean energy and climate change program.

  • NortheasternEE

    For years winter energy demand spikes were well within the limits of natural gas pipeline capacity. The present shortages are the consequence of the early retirement of coal and nuclear power plants. Coal and nuclear power plants are prematurely pushed into retirement by the subsidies given to wind and solar power on the false belief that wind and solar are alternative replacements for coal and nuclear. Wind and solar cannot function on the grid without backup firming from natural gas. What is actually replacing coal and nuclear is natural gas.

    The state Department of Energy Resources brags “DOER helps create a clean, affordable, and resilient energy future for the Commonwealth.”

    The opposite is true. The push for a “clean energy” future is increasing the dominance of natural gas which negates any clean energy from wind and solar. Resilience and affordability is compromised by the dependence for reliable power on a single fuel, natural gas. Instead of doubling down on state and regional mandates fro renewable energy, legislators need to pause, or reduce mandates for renewable energy, at least until wind and solar mature enough to handle the transition without compromising grid reliability, and driving rates sky high.

    • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

      Neither solar nor wind will ever be able to help us in the winter.
      Physics 101 — winter sun angle and the need to off-line windmills in high gusty winds lest they be destroyed.

  • When a long term series of supply are examined, the so-called shortages of natural gas do not correlate with degree days, nor do prices on the natural gas futures markets. In fact, the evidence is (see the latter are little more than random walks punctuated by speculative spikes chasing after shortage dollars during extreme weather.

    If New England’s electricity grid, operated and purportedly “managed” by ISO-NE, is such that, as +NortheasternEE writes, “Wind and solar cannot function on the grid without backup firming from natural gas”, then the problem is the grid and its management. Texas does not need such backing most of the time. See for yourself how well they can predict wind generation: or load That grid badly needs modernizing, and utilities have consistently refused to do it. See for one coherent explanation for why this is the case and what can be done about it.

    • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

      We aren’t in Texas — notice the white stuff outside. Even oil/gas home heating draws about 1.2 KW to run the burner & circ pump(s) or blowers. Go down cellar and read the plates on the equipment. (Amps times 120 is watts, divide by 1000 for KW.)

      And the reason the snow remains in full sun is the low energy of Massachusetts sunlight in winter. Solar panels can’t recover energy that doesn’t exist.

      • It’s called WIND, sir. Even ERCOT relies upon it more than solar. And we have plenty.

        Especially here.

        • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

          As I understand it, variable & gusty wind is really bad for turbines.
          It’s also possible to have too much wind.

          We don’t have the geography of Texas, we don’t have the steady, consistent wind Texas does.

  • Andrei Radulescu-Banu

    Greg, thanks for your advocacy for renewables – but you’re wrong. Wind and solar provide 3% of electricity these days, in New England, despite all the tax breaks, the subsidies, and the political attack led by the Conservation Law Foundation & others on expansion of gas pipelines.

    The problem, then, is not political will… but technological limits of wind and solar.

    Those technological limits can’t be lifted by court orders, or by political influence.

    The end result, blocking pipelines, has been more (not less) pollution, because diesel and coal have to pick up additional slack.

    Your role here is twofold: one, advocate fir change (and you’re doing well on that account), and show how change can be practically achieved (and you’re failing miserably on that account).

    • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

      Understand one other thing: You have to boil water to create steam. “Live” steam, capable of being run through a turbine to generate electricity, is in the neighborhood of 600 degrees, maybe more.
      Nuke, coal, oil, & gas power plants all operate the same way — steam is run through turbines.

      The advantage of gas is that it is instant-heat in a way that coal & atomic aren’t, but you still have to build up the steam before you can generate electricity. Or keep the water hot and waste the energy that you are using to do this, kinda like leaving your oven on when you aren’t using it.

      This is the reserve capacity factor — you not only have to be able to instantly pick up the load of the intermittent solar/wind, but have excess capacity beyond that to maintain voltage (i.e. prevent brownouts). Hence you have to run power plants even if you aren’t using the electricity. If you don’t — well, that’s essentially what caused the 2003 New York Blackout — and it happened in Ohio.

      • Andrei Radulescu-Banu

        Thus, natural gas can in theory a perfect complement to solar, wind – but, in effect, given the (lack of) scale in solar, wind production, it’s the other way around. Solar and wind are perfect complements to natural gas. You can’t wag the natural gas dog by the solar and wind tail though.

        • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

          I don’t understand the “wag the dog” issue.

          Look at it this way: A tree falls on a car, and you & I lift the tree off the car so the cops/EMT can help the people inside the crushed car.

          I then decide to walk away and let go of the tree. What happens next????

          Even if you were supporting 90% of the weight, you can’t suddenly hold all of it, and you’ll get seriously injured if you try. Same thing with power plants, they can’t suddenly catch an unanticipated load and will get damaged if they try.

      • Getajobhippy

        Natural Gas combustion turbines burn fuel to spin the turbines, just like a jet engine, no steam is needed. Cold start to full output is usually 10-15 min. Plants usually add a steam turbine to increase efficiency another 10-20% as the hot exhaust gas would just go to atmosphere otherwise.

        • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

          I stand corrected, but something still has to carry the load for that 10-15 minutes.
          Unless the load is to be “shed” and that means that something gets disconnected.

          • Getajobhippy

            That 10-15 minutes the plant is ramping up, the grid absorbs the ramping by reducing the need from either other generations or tie lines from other Balancing Athorities. Current natural gas plants in NE typically cycle daily due to natural load curves and thier fast coping times.

  • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

    Even if pipeline capacity was only at 100% of demand, we still should have additional pipelines for purposes of redundancy. Things break — like the Pilgrim transmission line did — and redundancy enables one to have a (perhaps more expensive) “fall-back” position. It would really suck if a gas pipeline had to be shut down right now.

    Worse, necessity would prevent a pipeline from being shut down were it to start leaking and/or in danger of catastrophic failure. Knowing that they would be causing rotating blackouts, regulators wouldn’t dare order the leaking/unsafe line closed. And the evil energy companies would remind the regulators (and perhaps the Governor) of the consequences of closing the line — the more evil/corrupt/whatever one believes the energy companies to be, the more one must consider this. (A civic-minded company wouldn’t want to do it either, but I digress…)

    Hence without excess/spare pipeline capacity to fall back on, it would be impossible to fix anything until spring — the pollution from escaping Methane — a super-duper greenhouse gas — would have to be tolerated. And if ISO-NE orders “load sheding”, that means lots of quite-dirty Diesel generators will be run, many producing visible black smoke. And Baker is going to have to start issuing waivers on air quality to plants unable to get gas right now lest he be held responsible for blackouts — yet more pollution.

    I thought the Conservation Law Foundation was supposed to be against pollution — in opposing/fighting additional pipelines, you’re actually causing it….

    • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

      And once a Governor declares an emergency, laws become irrelevant. Maine Governor LePage recently suspended the laws regulating the number of hours a truck driver may drive to facilitate the delivery of heating oil.

      No judge would touch this — it goes all the way back to Lincoln and Roger Taney in Maryland during the Civil War.

  • Getajobhippy

    ISO-NE average price over the past two weeks has been around $180MWHr, this is an average over every single 24 hour load cycle, that is not a “needle peak”. Take a look, its fun watching the prices climb

    What is the CLFs feeling of burring 5,000MW of oil to keep the lights on? Agreed Nat Gas constraints is a temporary issue, but would the CLF burn Natural Gas, Coal or Oil to keep the lights on?