Plotting the future of the region’s power grid

Keeping electricity flowing will be the key to decarbonization

DRIVE AROUND MASSACHUSETTS and you’d be hard pressed not to see a home with solar panels. Wind turbines are spinning over the Berkshires and coastal communities, with more planned for off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. It’s no secret that the region’s power system is undergoing a significant change.

To tackle the existential threat that is climate change, the New England states are moving to reduce carbon emissions from the electric, heating, and transportation sectors. Accomplishing these goals will require electric heating systems in homes and electric vehicles on roads, all powered by an electrical grid that is primarily fueled by renewable energy.

This path to a cleaner power system has been underway for decades, as the region’s resource mix has moved towards cleaner generation sources, starting with a shift to natural gas power plants and, more recently, a shift to more renewable resources. This change has benefited the environment by reducing greenhouse gases and reducing our dependence on imported fossil fuels. But it has also created system reliability challenges because natural gas generators cannot always get gas during extremely cold periods of New England winters and renewables aren’t always producing energy.

As the region’s grid operator, ISO New England is committed to ensuring the reliability of the bulk power system throughout the evolution to an even cleaner grid. Events across the country, like those in Texas in February and New Orleans in August, have given us a stark reminder that reliable electricity is not a luxury. It’s a necessity that we too often take for granted.

Over the next three decades, as our grid becomes the focal point in powering all aspects of our lives, it will be ISO New England’s job to keep our bulk power system reliable as the states meet their decarbonization goals. It is also clear that climate change is stimulating more severe weather, exacerbating reliability risks, and making our journey more challenging.

That’s why ISO New England, the New England states, and the New England Power Pool (NEPOOL) have been working on the Future Grid Initiative, a collaborative effort to determine exactly where the region’s power system is headed, how we’ll get there, and how to make sure New Englanders have access to reliable electricity during the transition.

The Future Grid Reliability Study will identify potential reliability issues the region may face when most of the electricity we need to charge our vehicles and heat our homes comes from weather-dependent renewable resources. As part of this study, ISO New England staff is looking at potential reliability gaps in 24 different future grid scenarios, as developed through stakeholder discussions that included industry participants and state officials.

Another study is looking at potential wholesale market frameworks to support the evolution of the power grid by creating a marketplace that attracts and retains resources with lower carbon emissions. Today, almost all large-scale renewable projects are being developed using state-sponsored long-term contracts, funded by ratepayers. Creating a marketplace that will compensate renewable projects for their environmental attributes, while shifting the financial risk from ratepayers to developers, would best maintain the competitive forces that have benefited New England consumers for more than 20 years.

A critical component of the region’s future grid is ensuring power system infrastructure can safely and reliably transmit electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s used. The ISO is working with stakeholders on additional analyses intended to further align regional system planning efforts with state policy goals.

Meeting these challenges will be crucial as the power grid takes on an even greater role in the lives of New Englanders. Momentum is growing to electrify the transportation and heating sectors of our economy, meaning more electric cars and trucks will be on the road and more homes and businesses warmed with electric heat.

ISO New England forecasts, developed in coordination with the states and utilities, are projecting the region will have more than 1 million additional light-duty electric vehicles on the road by the end of decade, with 486,000 in Massachusetts alone. We’re also projecting more than 1 million air-source heat pumps, 670,000 in Massachusetts, will be installed over the same time frame.

Meet the Author

Gordon van Welie

President and CEO, ISO New England
These vehicles and heat pumps are expected to account for nearly 5 percent of all electricity use in 2030, a share that will likely increase even faster in the following decade and require investments in resources to generate and transmit energy across the region.

New England is undoubtedly already on the path to a clean economy, but we’re only just beginning. ISO New England is already hard at work with government and industry leaders to make sure this future grid is a reliable one.

This is the first of a four-part series from ISO New England CEO Gordon van Welie on evolution of the region’s power system.