Energy forecast: Good today, future uncertain

What the shutdown of Pilgrim means for the region’s power grid

THE FORECAST FOR TODAY calls for mostly sunny skies with the high temperature in the upper 60s and the low around 52 degrees. It’s ideal weather from an energy perspective – not so hot that an air conditioner is needed and not so cold that the heat needs to be turned on. In weather like this, the shutdown of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station five days ago seems fairly insignificant.

At 6 a.m., for example, nuclear power – even with Pilgrim out of commission – supplied the largest chunk of New England’s electricity – 41 percent. Natural gas was second at 38 percent, renewables were third at 12 percent, and hydro was 8 percent.

But those percentages are deceptive because energy usage is so low right now. On a day like today, the steady output of New England’s remaining nuclear plants (3,336 megawatts from the financially shored up Millstone plant in Connecticut and Seabrook in New Hampshire) will account for a large chunk of the region’s energy needs.

However, as we head into the summer, and rising temperatures prompt people to turn on their air conditioners, peak energy usage is forecasted to double from what it is today. Nuclear power’s contribution to the fuel mix will decline in percentage terms, in part because Pilgrim is no longer producing electricity. Last Friday, before the shutdown of Pilgrim, the region’s nuclear power plants were producing 3,561 megawatts of electricity. A year ago at this time, they were producing 4,000 megawatts.

As Pilgrim retires, new power plants are coming online to make up for the loss of energy production. The bulk of this new power is coming from three plants capable of running on either natural gas or oil. (Five large solar facilities, a new wind farm, and the expansion of an existing wind farm will provide a much smaller portion of the new power.)

In the short term, roughly the next three years, the region’s reliance on power from fossil fuels is expected to grow with the closing of Pilgrim Station. The forecast is for an increase in greenhouse gas emissions as well.

What happens after the next three years is still unclear, particularly as the state tries to decarbonize its transportation sector, which would most likely require more, not less, electricity production.

Massachusetts is doubling its procurement of offshore wind and is expected to start importing a large amount of hydro-electricity from Quebec. Connecticut and Rhode Island are also investing in offshore wind.

Solar power is expected to keep growing, but without significant gains in electricity storage technology its effectiveness in displacing gas-fired power plants is likely to be somewhat limited.

Joshua S. Goldstein, the author of a new book on climate and nuclear power, argues that renewables aren’t the answer to reducing dependence on fossil fuels. “When the sun sets, when the wind dies, methane power plants quickly jump in to keep the grid up. Decarbonization it’s not,” he says in a Boston Globe op-ed.

Goldstein calls for building four South Korean-made nuclear reactors on the closed Pilgrim site in Plymouth. He acknowledges the idea of building more nuclear power plants scares people, but he insists the plants are safe, reliable, economical, and a way to end the region’s reliance on natural gas.

Judging from today’s Boston Globe letters to the editor section, his proposal has a zero chance of becoming reality.

Which leaves Gordon van Welie, who runs the region’s power grid operator, worried about the future. “This era that we’re entering into I think is going to be one of the most challenging eras of our history,” he tells WBUR.