We need to move away from reliance on natural gas

Shifting to renewables is best way to meet climate change goals

OUR REGIONAL grid operator seems ready to admit that overdependence on gas is the main reason our region’s power grid can be unreliable in cold weather, yet it remains to be seen whether they are willing to do anything to address it in the near-term.

Each year, ISO-New England issues dire predictions of a possible winter energy crisis – and anyone paying attention knows the reason behind Massachusetts’ seemingly annual winter grid reliability scare is our dependence on unreliable methane gas for heating and power generation.

On September 8 in Vermont, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)  heard from panelists regarding the challenges our electric grid faces each winter. There was a general acknowledgement, including from FERC Chairman Richard Glick, that overreliance on methane gas is the source of our region’s grid reliability problems. Our regional utilities and grid operators must work on solutions that move us away from fossil fuels, instead of expanding imports and propping up aging, polluting infrastructure.

In Massachusetts, two-thirds of the electricity is generated from methane gas, misleadingly referred to as “natural” gas. Most methane gas is extracted through environmentally damaging hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in states like Pennsylvania. The gas is then sent via aging and expensive infrastructure, including pipelines prone to leaks and other harmful incidents, to homes and buildings, and to power plants that further pollute the air as the gas is burned to create electricity.

Moving away from methane gas towards renewable energy at ISO New England and in Massachusetts is critical for our state to reach its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and clean our air. Massachusetts has already committed to 50 percent economy-wide emissions reductions from 1990 levels by 2030. To meet that goal, the state has committed to a 70 percent reduction of emissions in the electric power sector and additional, significant reductions in the heating and cooling sectors. Hitting those benchmarks would help us tackle climate change and keep our air clean.

Ending gas dependence would not only improve our environment and public health, but also strengthen our grid’s reliability and stabilize our energy prices. The gas supply chain — from pipeline to power plant, is a dirty and dangerous process that’s ripe for disruptions from extreme weather (think: frozen pipes or shutdowns for storms), accidents (like explosions or leaks), or unpredictable global crises (Russia’s war in Ukraine).

Adding renewable sources of energy, along with storage capacity, to the regional grid quickly is the most effective way to avoid winter blackouts and transition the regional grid away from polluting, explosive fuels, like gas. Massachusetts understands that clean energy is the future. That is why the Commonwealth just passed a climate bill, an Act Driving Energy and Offshore Wind, that will expand the offshore wind industry and remove restrictions on solar installations, which are more cost-effective than fossil fuels, and will help us to stem the impacts of climate change. Although Massachusetts is scaling up wind and solar, our state has more work to do.

In the short term, Massachusetts can accelerate the adoption of demand-response technologies and energy efficiency by investing in our energy infrastructure and in efficiency implementation.

The $125 million necessary to implement the recently passed climate bill currently awaits passage in an economic development bill that has stalled in the Legislature. The Legislature must officially allocate this money post haste and begin to implement their vision.

While investing in cleaning the grid and reducing demand, Massachusetts must also craft a plan to phase out the dirtiest and most polluting fossil fuel plants and meet its electric sector emission reduction goals. This roadmap must include a plan for retiring the electric generation peaker plants that come online when all the baseline plants on the grid are maxed out. These peaker plants are some of the oldest, least efficient, most emitting and most costly power plants in Massachusetts.

Just recently, the state allowed permitting of a new gas and oil-powered plant in a residential environmental justice neighborhood (as designated by the state) in Peabody. Third party analysis has shown that new energy storage would have been more cost effective, less risky, and less environmentally hazardous. Adding storage capacity from renewable energy sources, both on the grid and in homes through Mass Save’s Connected Solutions program, are ways we can take these inefficient, dirty peaker plants offline for good.

The time is now for Massachusetts to become a regional leader in advocating for policies within ISO-NE that would reduce reliance on gas and are consistent with our climate and clean energy goals. The next governor has a major opportunity to push the ISO to factor gas supply constraints into its grid planning, and to fairly value strategies other than burning fossil fuels for meeting electricity needs during winter peaking season.

Changing the way we manage and power our grid may not sound like a high profile issue, but it has the potential to save Massachusetts ratepayers money on our energy bills, address the climate crisis, and ease worries about whether we will be facing blackouts when heat and power are needed most.

Jess Nahigian is the state political director of the Sierra Club’s Massachusetts chapter.