We need both renewables and natural gas

It’s not an either/or proposition with the two types of energy

RENEWABLE ENERGY and natural gas aren’t an “either/or” choice for New England: Now and for years to come, they’re a “both/and” necessity to ensure we have a reliable, affordable energy system our six states can count on.

That’s one of the critical takeaways from the newest edition of the most authoritative biennial assessment of New England’s energy network – the regional electricity outlook released last month by ISO New England, the entity that runs our six-state power grid and wholesale electric markets.

From Block Island to the waters off Nantucket and from hillsides to rooftops across New England, wind power and solar energy are growing rapidly. Driven by mandates and subsidies in all six states, hundreds of offshore wind turbines and hundreds of thousands of solar panels are expected to go into service in the coming decade.

However enthusiastic you are about these developments, ISO New England is warning that there are inescapable limits on how much we can rely on wind and solar. We all know the sun sets at night and often gets covered by clouds. The wind slows down and sometimes stops completely.

Giant racks of batteries can compensate for this energy vulnerability—but for only minutes at a time, and at the cost of millions of dollars for large-scale systems.

With the responsibility of keeping the lights on 24/7, ISO New England in its new outlook notes :  “Until electric storage or other technologies have the ability to supply quick energy for longer periods and in greater quantities, flexible natural-gas resources are a necessary element of the hybrid grid, not only to help supply the ‘missing energy’ when the weather is uncooperative for wind and solar resources, but also to provide the precise grid-stability and reliability services that renewables generally cannot.’’

We’ve learned the hard way in recent winters that the lack of expansion of New England’s natural gas supply infrastructure can cause prices to spike, costing utility customers billions of dollars. It also forces usage of much heavier-emitting emergency generating sources.

As states push for more and more wind and solar without any meaningful expansion of natural gas supply networks, the ISO warns us, “[T]he grid may not be able to supply enough energy to meet electricity demand … Year-round energy security will need to be addressed as the operational dynamics of the hybrid grid take hold.”

Today, and for years to come, the only feasible and affordable way to provide the on-demand backstop for variable, unpredictable wind and solar energy is to operate power plants fueled by natural gas. Across New England, we rely most days on natural gas for 60 percent or more of our electricity – and these are the plants that can cycle up their output in seconds to fill in for wind and solar that suddenly go missing. Sixty seconds of critical power that costs millions to charge up and tap in giant battery systems costs just a few hundred dollars when produced by one of New England’s many natural gas power plants.

New England is long overdue for sensible, targeted upgrades of our energy delivery system to make it more reliable and more affordable for homeowners, businesses, and communities. A key ingredient is greater access to the affordable, abundant, US-produced natural gas of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region barely 300 miles away. That need grows only more urgent as coal-fired power plants and nuclear reactors such as Vermont Yankee and, soon, Pilgrim Station shut down operations.

Meet the Author

Steve Dodge

Executive director, Massachusetts Petroleum Council
As our regional power grid leaders are telling us, ensuring adequate, reliable access to natural gas is critical because “natural gas resources are a necessary element of the hybrid grid.’’ Renewable energy is a growing part of our future – but only so long as we have the access to natural gas to make it work reliably and affordably.

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